Magma pancakes beneath Lake Toba

The tremendous amounts of lava that are emitted during super-eruptions accumulate over millions of years prior to the event in the Earth’s crust. These reservoirs consist of magma that intrudes into the crust in the form of numerous horizontally oriented sheets resting on top of each other like a pile of pancakes.

A team of geoscientists from Novosibirsk, Paris and Potsdam presents these results in the current issue of Science (2014/10/31). The scientists investigate the question on where the tremendous amounts of material that are ejected to from huge calderas during super-eruptions actually originate. Here we are not dealing with large volcanic eruptions of the size of Pinatubo of Mount St. Helens, here we are talking about extreme events: The Toba-caldera in the Sumatra subduction zone in Indonesia originated from one of the largest volcanic eruption in recent Earth history, about 74,000 years ago. It emitted the enormous amount of 2,800 cubic kilometers of volcanic material with a dramatic global impact on climate and environment. Hereby, the 80 km long Lake Toba was formed.

Geoscientists were interested in finding out: How can the gigantic amounts of eruptible material required to form such a super volcano accumulate in the Earth’s crust. Was this a singular event thousands of years ago or can it happen again?

Researchers from the GFZ German Research Centre for Geosciences successfully installed a seismometer network in the Toba area to investigate these questions and provided the data to all participating scientists via the GEOFON data archive. GFZ scientist, Christoph Sens-Schönfelder, a co-author of the study explains: “With a new seismological method we were able to investigate the internal structure of the magma reservoir beneath the Toba-caldera. We found that the middle crust below the Toba supervolcano is horizontally layered.” The answer thus lies in the structure of the magma reservoir. Here, below 7 kilometers the crust consists of many, mostly horizontal, magmatic intrusions still containing molten material.

New seismological technique

It was already suspected that the large volume of magma ejected during the supervolcanic eruption had slowly accumulated over the last few millions of years in the form of consequently emplaced intrusions. This could now be confirmed with the results of field measurements. The GFZ scientists used a novel seismological method for this purpose. Over a six-month period they recorded the ambient seismic noise, the natural vibrations which usually are regarded as disturbing signals. With a statistical approach they analyzed the data and discovered that the velocity of seismic waves beneath Toba depends on the direction in which the waves shear the Earth’s crust. Above 7 kilometers depth the deposits of the last eruption formed a zone of low velocities. Below this depth the seismic anisotropy is caused by horizontally layered intrusions that structure the reservoir like a pile of pancakes. This is reflected in the seismic data.


Not only in Indonesia, but also in other parts of the world there are such supervoclcanoes, which erupt only every couple of hundred thousand years but then in gigantic eruptions. Because of their size those volcanoes do not build up mountains but manifest themselves with their huge carter formed during the eruption – the caldera. Other known supervolcanoes include the area of the Yellow-Stone-Park, volcanoes in the Andes, and the caldera of Lake-Taupo in New Zealand. The present study helps to better understand the processes that lead to such super-eruptions.

Life in Earth’s primordial sea was starved for sulfate

This is a research vessel on Lake Matano, Indonesia -- a modern lake with chemistry similar to Earth's early oceans. -  Sean Crowe, University of British Columbia.
This is a research vessel on Lake Matano, Indonesia — a modern lake with chemistry similar to Earth’s early oceans. – Sean Crowe, University of British Columbia.

The Earth’s ancient oceans held much lower concentrations of sulfate–a key biological nutrient–than previously recognized, according to research published this week in Science.

The findings paint a new portrait of our planet’s early biosphere and primitive marine life. Organisms require sulfur as a nutrient, and it plays a central role in regulating atmospheric chemistry and global climate.

“Our findings are a fraction of previous estimates, and thousands of time lower than current seawater levels,” says Sean Crowe, a lead author of the study and an assistant professor in the Departments of Microbiology and Immunology, and Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Sciences at the University of British Columbia.

“At these trace amounts, sulfate would have been poorly mixed and short-lived in the oceans–and this sulfate scarcity would have shaped the nature, activity and evolution of early life on Earth.”

UBC, University of Southern Denmark, CalTech, University of Minnesota Duluth, and University of Maryland researchers used new techniques and models to calibrate fingerprints of bacterial sulfur metabolisms in Lake Matano, Indonesia — a modern lake with chemistry similar to Earth’s early oceans.

Measuring these fingerprints in rocks older than 2.5 billion years, they discovered sulfate 80 times lower than previously thought.

The more sensitive fingerprinting provides a powerful tool to search for sulfur metabolisms deep in Earth’s history or on other planets like Mars.


Previous research has suggested that Archean sulfate levels were as low as 200 micromolar– concentrations at which sulfur would still have been abundantly available to early marine life.

The new results indicate levels were likely less than 2.5 micromolar, thousands of times lower than today.

What the researchers did

Researchers used state-of-the-art mass spectrometric approaches developed at California Institute of Technology to demonstrate that microorganisms fractionate sulfur isotopes at concentrations orders of magnitude lower than previously recognized.

They found that microbial sulfur metabolisms impart large fingerprints even when sulfate is scarce.

The team used the techniques on samples from Lake Matano, Indonesia–a sulfate-poor modern analogue for the Earth’s Archean oceans.

“New measurements in these unique modern environments allow us to use numerical models to reconstruct ancient ocean chemistry with unprecedented resolution” says Sergei Katsev an Associate Professor at the Large Lakes Observatory, University of Minnesota Duluth.

Using models informed by sulfate isotope fractionation in Lake Matano, they established a new calibration for sulfate isotope fractionation that is extensible to the Earth’s oceans throughout history. The researchers then reconstructed Archean seawater sulfate concentrations using these models and an exhaustive compilation of sulfur isotope data from Archean sedimentary rocks.


Crowe initiated the research while a post-doctoral fellow with Donald Canfield at the University of Southern Denmark.

Ancient Indonesian climate shift linked to glacial cycle

Using sediments from a remote lake, researchers from Brown University have assembled a 60,000-year record of rainfall in central Indonesia. The analysis reveals important new details about the climate history of a region that wields a substantial influence on the global climate as a whole.

The Indonesian archipelago sits in the Indo-Pacific Warm Pool, an expanse of ocean that supplies a sizable fraction of the water vapor in Earth’s atmosphere and plays a role in propagating El Niño cycles. Despite the region’s importance in the global climate system, not much is known about its own climate history, says James Russell, associate professor of geological sciences at Brown.

“We wanted to assess long-term climate variation in the region,” Russell said, “not just to assess how global climate influences Indonesia, but to see how that feeds back into the global climate system.”

The data are published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The study found that the region’s normally wet, tropical climate was interrupted by a severe dry period from around 33,000 years ago until about 16,000 years ago. That period coincides with peak of the last ice age, when glaciers covered vast swaths of the northern hemisphere. Climate models had suggested that glacial ice could shift the track of tropical monsoons, causing an Indonesian dry period. But this is the first hard data to show that was indeed the case.

It’s also likely, Russell and his colleagues say, that the drying in Indonesia created a feedback loop that amplified ice age cooling.

“A very large fraction of the Earth’s water vapor comes from evaporation of the ocean around Indonesia, and water vapor is the Earth’s most important greenhouse gas,” Russell said. “As you start varying the hydrological cycle of Indonesia, you almost have to vary the Earth’s water vapor concentration. If you reduce the water vapor content it should cool the climate globally. So the fact that we have this very strong drying in the tropics during glaciation would argue for a strong feedback of water vapor concentration to the global climate during glacial-interglacial cycles.”

Surprisingly absent from the data, Russell says, is the influence of other processes known to drive climate elsewhere in the tropics. In particular, there was no sign of climate change in Indonesia associated with Earth’s orbital precession, a wobble caused by Earth’s axis tilt that generates differences in sunlight in a 21,000-year cycle.

“There’s very little indication of the 21,000-year cycle that dominates much of the tropics,” he said. “Instead we see this very big set of changes that appear linked to the amount of ice on earth.”

To arrive at those conclusions, the researchers used sediment cores from Lake Towuti, an ancient lake on the island of Sulawesi in central Indonesia. By looking at how concentrations of chemical elements in the sediment change with depth, the researchers can develop a continuous record of how much surface runoff poured into the lake. The rate of runoff is directly related to the rate of rainfall.

In this case, Russell and his colleagues looked at titanium, an element commonly used to gauge surface runoff. They found a marked dip in titanium levels in sediments dated to between 33,000 and 16,000 years ago – a strong indicator that surface runoff slowed during that period.

That finding was buttressed by another proxy of rainfall: carbon isotopes from plant leaf wax. Leaves are covered with a carbon-based wax that protects them from losing too much water to evaporation. Different plants have different carbon isotopes in their leaf wax. Tropical grasses, which are adapted for dryer climates, tend to have the C-13 isotope. Trees, which thrive in wetter environs, use the C-12 isotope. The ratio of those two isotopes in the sediment cores is an indicator of the relative abundance of grass versus trees.

The cores showed an increase in abundance of grass in the same sediments that showed a decrease in surface runoff. Taken together, the results suggest a dry period strong enough to alter the region’s vegetation that was closely correlated with the peak glaciation in the northern hemisphere.

The next step for Russell and his colleagues is to see if this pattern is repeated in multiple glacial cycles. Glacial periods run on cycles of about 100,000 years. Core samples from deeper in the Lake Towuti sediment will show whether this drying evident during the last ice age also happened in previous ice ages. It’s estimated that Lake Tuwuti sediments record up to 800,000 years of climate data, and Russell recently received funding to take deeper cores.

Ultimately, Russell hopes his work will help to predict how the region might be influenced by human-forced global warming.

“This provides the kind of fundamental data we need to understand how the climate of this region operates on long timescales,” he said. “That can then anchor our understanding of how it might respond to global warming.”

Improving earthquake early warning systems for California and Taiwan

<IMG SRC="/Images/561618626.jpg" WIDTH="350" HEIGHT="319" BORDER="0" ALT="This is a map of the blind-zone radius for California. Yellow and orange colors correspond to regions with small blind zones and red and dark-red
colors correspond to regions with large blind zones. – SRL“>
This is a map of the blind-zone radius for California. Yellow and orange colors correspond to regions with small blind zones and red and dark-red
colors correspond to regions with large blind zones. – SRL

Earthquake early warning systems may provide the public with crucial seconds to prepare for severe shaking. For California, a new study suggests upgrading current technology and relocating some seismic stations would improve the warning time, particularly in areas poorly served by the existing network – south of San Francisco Bay Area to north Los Angeles and north of the San Francisco Bay Area.

A separate case study focuses on the utility of low cost sensors to create a high-density, effective network that can be used for issuing early warnings in Taiwan. Both studies appear in the November issue of the journal Seismological Research Letters (SRL).

“We know where most active faults are in California, and we can smartly place seismic stations to optimize the network,” said Serdar Kuyuk, assistant professor of civil engineering at Sakarya University in Turkey, who conducted the California study while he was a post-doctoral fellow at University of California (UC), Berkeley. Richard Allen, director of the Seismological Laboratory at UC Berkeley, is the co-author of this study.

Japan started to build its EEW system after the 1995 Kobe earthquake and performed well during the 2011 magnitude 9 Tohoku-Oki earthquake. While the U.S. Geological Survey(USGS)/Caltech Southern California Seismic and TriNet Network in Southern California was upgraded in response to the 1994 Northridge quake, the U.S is lagging behind Japan and other countries in developing a fully functional warning system.

“We should not wait until another major quake before improving the early warning system,” said Kuyuk.

Noting California’s recent law that calls for the creation of a statewide earthquake early warning (EEW) system, Kuyuk says “the study is timely and highlights for policymakers where to deploy stations for optimal coverage.” The approach maximizes the warning time and reduces the size of “blind zones” where no warning is possible, while also taking into account budgetary constraints.

Earthquake early warning systems detect the initiation of an earthquake and issue warning alerts of possible forthcoming ground shaking. Seismic stations detect the energy from the compressional P-wave first, followed by the shear and surface waves, which cause the intense shaking and most damage.

The warning time that any system generates depends on many factors, with the most important being the proximity of seismic stations to the earthquake epicenter. Once an alert is sent, the amount of warning time is a function of distance from the epicenter, where more distant locations receive more time.

Areas in “blind zones” do not receive any warning prior to arrival of the more damaging S-wave. The goal, writes Kuyuk and Allen, is to minimize the number of people and key infrastructure within the blind zone. For the more remote earthquakes, such as earthquakes offshore or in unpopulated regions, larger blind zones can be tolerated.

“There are large blind zones between the Bay Area and Los Angeles where there are active faults,” said Kuyuk. “Why? There are only 10 stations along the 150-mile section of the San Andreas Fault. Adding more stations would improve warning for people in these areas, as well as people in LA and the Bay Area should an earthquake start somewhere in between,” said Kuyuk.

Adding stations may not be so simple, according to Allen. “While there is increasing enthusiasm from state and federal legislators to build the earthquake early warning system that the public wants,” said Allen, “the reality of the USGS budget for the earthquake program means that it is becoming impossible to maintain the functionality of the existing network operated by the USGS and the universities.

“The USGS was recently forced to downgrade the telemetry of 58 of the stations in the San Francisco Bay Area in order to reduce costs,” said Allen. “While our SRL paper talks about where additional stations are needed in California to build a warning system, we are unfortunately losing stations.”

In California, the California Integrated Seismic Network (CISN) consists of multiple networks, with 2900 seismic stations at varying distances from each other, ranging from 2 to 100 km. Of the some 2900 stations, 377 are equipped to contribute to an EEW system.

Kuyuk and Allen estimate 10 km is the ideal distance between seismic stations in areas along major faults or near major cities. For other areas, an interstation distance of 20 km would provide sufficient warning. The authors suggest greater density of stations and coverage could be achieved by upgrading technology used by the existing stations, integrating Nevada stations into the current network, relocating some existing stations and adding new ones to the network.

The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation funded this study.

A Low-Cost Solution in Taiwan

In a separate study, Yih-Min Wu of National Taiwan University reports on the successful experiment to use low cost MEMS sensors to build a high-density seismic network to support an early warning system for Taiwan.

MEMS accelerometers are tiny sensors used in common devices, such as smart phones and laptops. These sensors are relatively cheap and have proven to be sensitive detectors of ground motion, particularly from large earthquakes.

The current EEW system in Taiwan consists of 109 seismic stations that can provide alerts within 20 seconds following the initial detection of an earthquake. Wu sought to reduce the time between earthquake and initial alert, thereby increasing the potential warning time.

The EEW research group at National Taiwan University developed a P-wave alert device named “Palert” that uses MEMS accelerometers for onsite earthquake early warning, at one-tenth the cost of traditional strong motion instruments.

From June 2012 to May 2013 Wu and his colleagues tested a network of 400 Palert devices deployed throughout Taiwan, primarily at elementary schools to take advantage of existing power and Internet connections and where they can be used to educate students about earthquake hazard mitigation.

During the testing period, the Palert system functioned similarly to the existing EEW system, which consists of the conventional strong motion instruments. With four times as many stations, the Palert network can provide a detailed shaking map for damage assessments, which it did for the March 2013 magnitude 6.1 Nantou quake.

Wu suggests the relatively low cost Palert device may have commercial potential and can be readily integrated into existing seismic networks to increase coverage density of EEW systems. In addition to China, Indonesia and Mexico, plans call for the Palert devices to be installed near New Delhi, India to test the feasibility of an EEW system there.

Devastating long-distance impact of earthquakes

In 2006 the island of Java, Indonesia was struck by a devastating earthquake followed by the onset of a mud eruption to the east, flooding villages over several square kilometers and that continues to erupt today. Until now, researchers believed the earthquake was too far from the mud volcano to trigger the eruption. Geophysicists at the University of Bonn, Germany and ETH Zurich, Switzerland use computer-based simulations to show that such triggering is possible over long distances. The results have been published in “Nature Geoscience.”

On May 27, 2006 the ground of the Indonesian island Java was shaking with a magnitude 6.3 earthquake. The epicenter was located 25 km southwest of the city of Yogyakarta and initiated at a depth of 12 km. The earthquake took thousands of lives, injured ten thousand and destroyed buildings and homes. 47 hours later, about 250 km from the earthquake hypocenter, a mud volcano formed that came to be known as “Lusi”, short for “Lumpur Sidoarjo”. Hot mud erupted in the vicinity of an oil drilling-well, shooting mud up to 50 m into the sky and flooding the area. Scientists expect the mud volcano to be active for many more years.

Eruption of mud volcano has natural cause

Was the eruption of the mud triggered by natural events or was it man-made by the nearby exploration-well? Geophysicists at the University of Bonn, Germany and at ETH Zürich, Switzerland investigated this question with numerical wave-propagation experiments. “Many researchers believed that the earthquake epicenter was too far from Lusi to have activated the mud volcano,” says Prof. Dr. Stephen A. Miller from the department of Geodynamics at the University of Bonn. However, using their computer simulations that include the geological features of the Lusi subsurface, the team of Stephen Miller concluded that the earthquake was the trigger, despite the long distance.

The overpressured solid mud layer was trapped between layers with different acoustic properties, and this system was shaken from the earthquake and aftershocks like a bottle of champagne. The key, however, is the reflections provided by the dome-shaped geology underneath Lusi that focused the seismic waves of the earthquakes like the echo inside a cave. Prof. Stephen Miller explains: “Our simulations show that the dome-shaped structure with different properties focused seismic energy into the mud layer and could very well have liquified the mud that then injected into nearby faults.”

Previous studies would have underestimated the energy of the seismic waves, as ground motion was only considered at the surface. However, geophysicists at the University of Bonn suspect that those were much less intense than at depth. The dome-like structure “kept” the seismic waves at depth and damped those that reached the surface. “This was actually a lower estimate of the focussing effect because only one wave cycle was input. This effect increases with each wave cycle because of the reducing acoustic impedance of the pressurizing mud layer”. In response to claims that the reported highest velocity layer used in the modeling is a measurement artifact, Miller says “that does not change our conclusions because this effect will occur whenever a layer of low acoustic impedance is sandwiched between high impedance layers, irrespective of the exact values of the impedances. And the source of the Lusi mud was the inside of the sandwich.”

It has already been proposed that a tectonic fault is connecting Lusi to a 15 km distant volcanic system. Prof. Miller explains “This connection probably supplies the mud volcano with heat and fluids that keep Lusi erupting actively up to today”, explains Miller.

With their publication, scientists from Bonn and Zürich point out, that earthquakes can trigger processes over long distances, and this focusing effect may apply to other hydrothermal and volcanic systems. Stephen Miller concludes: “Being a geological rarity, the mud volcano may contribute to a better understanding of triggering processes and relationships between seismic and volcanic activity.” Miller also adds “maybe this work will settle the long-standing controversy and focus instead on helping those affected.” The island of Java is part of the so called Pacific Ring of Fire, a volcanic belt which surrounds the entire Pacific Ocean. Here, oceanic crust is subducted underneath oceanic and continental tectonic plates, leading to melting of crustal material at depth. The resulting magma uprises and is feeding numerous volcanoes.

Sea level influenced tropical climate during the last ice age

The exposed Sunda Shelf during glacial times greatly affected the atmospheric circulation. The shelf is shown on the left for present-day as the light-blue submerged areas between Java, Sumatra, Borneo, and Thailand, and on the right for the last ice age as the green exposed area. -  Pedro DiNezio
The exposed Sunda Shelf during glacial times greatly affected the atmospheric circulation. The shelf is shown on the left for present-day as the light-blue submerged areas between Java, Sumatra, Borneo, and Thailand, and on the right for the last ice age as the green exposed area. – Pedro DiNezio

Scientists look at past climates to learn about climate change and the ability to simulate it with computer models. One region that has received a great deal of attention is the Indo-Pacific warm pool, the vast pool of warm water stretching along the equator from Africa to the western Pacific Ocean.

In a new study, Pedro DiNezio of the International Pacific Research Center, University of Hawaii at Manoa, and Jessica Tierney of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution investigated preserved geological clues (called “proxies”) of rainfall patterns during the last ice age when the planet was dramatically colder than today. They compared these patterns with computer model simulations in order to find a physical explanation for the patterns inferred from the proxies.

Their study, which appears in the May 19, online edition of Nature Geoscience, not only reveals unique patterns of rainfall change over the Indo-Pacific warm pool, but also shows that they were caused by the effect of lowered sea level on the configuration of the Indonesian archipelago.

“For our research,” explains lead-author Pedro DiNezio at the International Pacific Research Center, “we compared the climate of the ice age with our recent warmer climate. We analyzed about 100 proxy records of rainfall and salinity stretching from the tropical western Pacific to the western Indian Ocean and eastern Africa. Rainfall and salinity signals recorded in geological sediments can tell us much about past changes in atmospheric circulation over land and the ocean respectively.”

“Our comparisons show that, as many scientists expected, much of the Indo-Pacific warm pool was drier during this glacial period compared with today. But, counter to some theories, several regions, such as the western Pacific and the western Indian Ocean, especially eastern Africa, were wetter,” adds co-author Jessica Tierney from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute.

In the second step, the scientists matched these rainfall and salinity patterns with simulations from 12 state-of-the-art climate models that are used to also predict future climate change. For this matching they applied a method of categorical data comparison called the ‘Cohen’s kappa’ statistic. Though widely used in the medical field, this method has not yet been used to match geological climate signals with climate model simulations.

“We were taken aback that only one model out of the 12 showed statistical agreement with the proxy-inferred patterns of the rainfall changes. This model, though, agrees well with both the rainfall and salinity indicators – two entirely independent sets of proxy data covering distinct areas of the tropics,” says DiNezio.

The model reveals that the dry climate during the glacial period was driven by reduced convection over a region of the warm pool called the Sunda Shelf. Today the shelf is submerged beneath the Gulf of Thailand, but was above sea level during the glacial period, when sea level was about 120 m lower.

“The exposure of the Sunda Shelf greatly weakened convection over the warm pool, with far-reaching impacts on the large-scale circulation and on rainfall patterns from Africa to the western Pacific and northern Australia,” explains DiNezio.

The main weakness of the other models, according to the authors, is their limited ability to simulate convection, the vertical air motions that lift humid air into the atmosphere. Differences in the way each model simulates convection may explain why the results for the glacial period are so different.

“Our research resolves a decades-old question of what the response of tropical climate was to glaciation,” concludes DiNezio. “The study, moreover, presents a fine benchmark for assessing the ability of climate models to simulate the response of tropical convection to altered land masses and global temperatures.

Indonesian ice field may be gone in a few years, core may contain secrets of Pacific El Nino events

Glaciologists who drilled through an ice cap perched precariously on the edge of a 16,000-foot-high Indonesian mountain ridge say that the ice field could vanish within in the next few years, another victim of global climate change. -  Photo courtesy of Paolo Gabrielli, Ohio State University.
Glaciologists who drilled through an ice cap perched precariously on the edge of a 16,000-foot-high Indonesian mountain ridge say that the ice field could vanish within in the next few years, another victim of global climate change. – Photo courtesy of Paolo Gabrielli, Ohio State University.

Glaciologists who drilled through an ice cap perched precariously on the edge of a 16,000-foot-high Indonesian mountain ridge say that the ice field could vanish within in the next few years, another victim of global climate change.

The Ohio State University researchers, supported by a National Science Foundation grant and the Freeport-McMoRan mining company and collaborating with Meteorological, Climatological and Geophysical Agency (BMKG) Indonesia and Columbia University, drilled three ice cores, two to bedrock, from the peak’s rapidly shrinking ice caps.

They hope these new cores will provide a long-term record of the El Nino-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) phenomenon that dominates climate variability in the tropics.

“We were able to bring back three cores from these glaciers, one 30 meters (98.4 feet) long, one 32 meters (105 feet) long and the third 26 meters (85 feet) long,” explained Lonnie Thompson, Distinguished University Professor in the School of Earth Sciences and a senior researcher with Ohio State’s Byrd Polar Research Center.

While the cores are relatively short compared to those retrieved during some of Thompson’s previous 57 expeditions, “We won’t know what history they contain until we do the analyses.” A short 50-meter core previously drilled in 2000 through ice fields atop Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa yielded an 11,700-year history of climate.

This project is largely focused on capturing a record of ENSO. Last year, Thompson’s team drilled through an ice cap atop Hualcán, a mountain in the Peruvian Andes on the eastern side of the Pacific Ocean.

From there, they brought back a 189-meter (620-foot) and a 195-meter (640-foot) core (to bedrock) from which they are reconstructing a high-resolution climate record going back over 500 years. The Hualcán record should complement the more recent part of their 19,000-year record recovered from nearby Huascarán in 1993.

This year’s effort focused on several small and rare ice fields almost due west of the Andes on the other side of the Pacific – near a mountain called Puncak Jaya. Along with the ice core, the team collected rainwater samples from locations ranging in elevation from sea level up to the site of the glacier.

Coupled with weather data garnered from 11 weather stations operated by Freeport-McMoRan, the isotopic composition of the rainwater samples will help the team interpret the climate history locked in the ice cores.

The relative abundances of the stable isotopes of oxygen and hydrogen provide a proxy for temperature, while concentrations of different chemical species preserved in the ice reveal changes in the atmosphere such as those occurring during major volcanic eruptions.

Elevated dust content in the ice may signal increased drought while the presence of specific organic compounds may reflect increased fire activity (forest burning).

Radioactivity from atomic bomb tests in the 1950s and 1960s provide time markers that help date the cores. However, cores recently collected from Himalayan ice fields lacked these radioactive layers indicating the glaciers are now losing mass from the surface down, destroying the time markers.

The drill site itself was hazardous. “The area was riddled with crevasses and lacked any substantial snowfall,” Thompson said. This meant that the team had to wear crampons – pointed metal cleats on their boots – to maneuver on the ice. Daily rainstorms in the area, complete with lightning, increased the risks at the drill site.

The expedition was stalled almost before it began when a pallet containing the ice core drills was missing from the equipment delivered to the drill site. Inquiries with the shipping company failed to uncover the missing pieces SO Freeport-McMoRan offered their own machine shop to fabricate a new drill. While that effort got underway, Thompson, Freeport liaison Scott Hanna and researcher Dwi Susanto of Columbia University flew back to Jakarta and eventually found the lost equipment inside the shipper’s warehouse.

Near the end, the project came close to catastrophe again at the end when members of a local native tribe, after failing in their attempt to reach the ice core drilling site, broke into the freezer facility where the cores were stored, intent on destroying them. Company officials, fearing the worst, had secretly transported the ice to another facility for safekeeping a few hours earlier.

Four local tribes claim the ice fields as their own, Thompson said. “They believe that the ice is their god’s skull, that the mountains are its arms and legs and that we were drilling into the skull to steal their memories,” he said. “In their religion they are a part of nature, and by extension they are a part of the ice, so if it disappears, a part of their souls will also be lost.”

Several days later, at a public forum arranged by Freeport-McMoRan, Thompson addressed over 100 tribal members and Freeport employees to explain the importance of the project to understanding local to global climate changes. After 4.5 hours of discussion, the local people agreed to allow the ice cores to be returned to Ohio State for analysis.

Thompson said that the project could never have been done without the aid of Freeport-McMoRan which provided aircraft and helicopter support, provided cooks and food for the drill camp, and long-term storage of the ice cores and safe transport of the ice from Papua back to Jakarta.

“They provided hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of support to the project. And the result is that these cores are in the best possible condition of any core we’ve ever brought out of the field,” Thompson said.

The ice fields near Punkak Jaya are tiny. Together they total barely 1.7 square kilometers (0.6 square miles), an area very similar to the current 1.8 square kilometers (0.7 square miles) on the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa. An analysis of the first of the cores is expected by December, the researchers said.