Lonnie Thompson Biography

July 1, 1948 Gassaway, West Virginia


Scientist Lonnie Thompson is an authority on ice. For more than thirty years, he has crossed every type of terrain, weathered blistering heat and teeth-rattling cold, and climbed some of the world's highest mountains in order to collect and study ice. Thompson studies ice cores from mountaintops because they provide an historical map of the climate of a region; cores also give a glimpse into the future of our planet's health. In the mid-2000s, the paleoclimatologist (a scientist who studies past climates through geological history) made a startling discovery: ice caps on mountains such as Kilimanjaro in Tanzania were melting at an alarming rate, and could completely disappear in the very near future. As a result, in the late 2000s Thompson and his team raced to Africa, Asia, and South America in order to retrieve samples of endangered ice. As NASA director James Hansen explained to Science magazine, "If [Thompson] wasn't doing it, we'd lose those records forever. He's a sort of hero."

From coal country to ice caps

Lonnie G. Thompson was born on July 1, 1948, in Gassaway, a tiny city in a poor rural area of West Virginia. His parents never went to school beyond eighth grade, but young Lonnie had bigger aspirations. From a very early age he showed an interest in science and displayed the kind of curiosity that would serve him well as an adult. For example, Thompson set up a weather station in his family's barn and would make bets using his lunch money on whether or not it would rain. In the late 1960s, the budding scientist enrolled at Marshall University, located in Huntington, West Virgina, which meant he was the first member of the Thompson family to attend college. In 1970 he graduated with a degree in geology with the intent of becoming a coal geologist. The decision was a practical one; Thompson told Kevin Krajick of Science magazine, "I hated poverty, and West Virginia's full of coal."

"What we're doing is cashing in on a bank account that was built over thousands of years but isn't being replenished. Once it's gone, it will be difficult to reform."

While at Marshall, Thompson also met his future wife, Ellen Mosley, who would one day become his research partner and who eventually became a renowned scientist in her own right. Following graduation, Thompson and Mosley headed to Ohio State University (OSU) in Columbus to pursue graduate degrees in geology. Thompson soon became involved in a research project at OSU's Institute of Polar Studies (later renamed the Byrd Polar Research Center) where scientists were analyzing ice cores brought back from polar regions, including Greenland and Antarctica. This was a field that was just in its infancy, and Thompson and Mosley were fascinated. By studying layers of ages-old ice, researchers were able to analyze the gases, chemical elements, and dust concentrations that had been captured over the course of thousands of years. The collected data revealed much about the history of a region, including what the air temperature was during a certain period, how wet or dry an area was, what kind of volcanic activity took place, even what kind of plants were prevalent based on the type of pollen that was floating around.

The Day After Tomorrow: Fact or Fiction

In 2004 Hollywood tackled the problem of global warming in the action-packed thriller The Day After Tomorrow, starring Dennis Quaid as a paleoclimatologist who tries to save his son from weather gone out of control. Because of global warming there has been an abrupt climate change, which creates catastrophic natural disasters around the globe: grapefruit-size hail pelts Tokyo, Japan; blizzards hit New Delhi, India; and overnight, the temperature in New York City swings from hot to freezing, causing the ocean to swell up and swallow Manhattan. All of the weather shifts mark the beginning of the next Ice Age.

Film fans appreciated the movie's stunning special effects, but scientists took an interest in the film for another reason. Lonnie Thompson saw The Day After Tomorrow twice, and, as he said to Maren Dougherty of National Geographic, "It's definitely over the top. But at least it forces the American public to think about the climate." And the public was curious about how much truth there was hidden in the fiction. Stefan Lovgren of National Geographic spoke with Tom Prugh, a senior editor at the Worldwatch Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based research center that focuses on the environment. According to Prugh, "There is a kernel of truth" in the movie, "although it has been 'Hollywoodized'."

Prugh went on to explain that global warming does indeed exist and that over the last one hundred years the temperature of Earth has increased about 1° Fahrenheit. That may not sound like a great deal, but according to Prugh it is a significant amount of warming that could potentially have serious consequences. Temperature changes cause such things as a rise in ocean levels (water expands as it heats), an increase in the number and intensity of storms, and major flooding. Indirectly, climate changes may also result in the extinction of an entire species (of plants, insects, or animals.).

Prugh was quick to point out that, unlike the movie, such drastic climate changes do not occur overnight. But he also added that humans are "stepping on the accelerator" by adding to the gases that are trapped in the Earth's atmosphere. Burning coal, oil, and gasoline are some of the major culprits. So, even though The Day After Tomorrow is just a movie, climate change is a very real issue. And Prugh hopes that moviegoers will take something away from the theater: "I hope people understand that climate change is happening now. It's affecting everyone who is alive on the planet, and it will inevitably affect their children and their children's children." Prush also offered some simple everyday fixes. One suggestion is to turn off the light when you leave a room. Since more than half of the electricity generated in the United States comes from coal, turning off a light reduces the amount of carbon released in the air. Just think what would happen if a million people stopped to turn off the lights.

Because the field was so new and there were so few polar drilling expeditions, competition was fierce. Mosley managed to carve a spot for herself in the OSU geology department and eventually became a senior investigator on Antarctic drilling projects. But Thompson decided to forge into an even newer area of exploration, which involved collecting ice samples from tropical regions of the planet. At the time, no one believed that such areas could yield anything valuable; tropical ice simply was not old enough or stable enough to hold long-term records. Thompson, however, was convinced that even in warmer climates, the elevation of ice caps was so extreme that layers of snow and ice probably stay frozen long enough to reveal all kinds of data. So, in 1974, he struck out for the Peruvian Andes to take on his first project: the ice cap of Quelccaya.

Across five continents

With an elevation of over 18,000 feet, very few people (except local sheepherders) had ever been near Quelccaya, and no one had ever actually explored the massive ice mound. As he climbed higher and higher, Thompson experienced firsthand the dangers of working at such an extreme elevation; dangers that included horrendous headaches, difficulty breathing, and searing heat from the sun. In addition, the novice explorer faced another obstacle: the drills used in polar exploration could not be used; they were too heavy and had to be powered with a generator. Undaunted, Thompson worked with a Nebraska engineer named Bruce Koci to design a lighter drill that would run on solar energy. He also appealed to other researchers to collaborate with him. In 1983 Thompson, Koci, and several other scientists made their way to the top of Quelccaya. The expedition also included forty mules, donkeys, and horses.

By the end of ten weeks, Thompson's team had successfully extracted two ice cores that contained enough dust and debris to document regional weather back to 470 C.E. It was the first deep-core drilling of a tropical glacier and the first real tropical ice record. Researchers in other fields sat up and took notice of the discovery. Archaeologists, in particular, were pleased because Thompson's research helped scientifically validate theories about ancient cultures (such as the Tiwanuka) who they believed had lived in the area. Geologists were interested, but not overly impressed; a fifteen-hundred-year-old core was nothing compared to centuries-old polar ice. But Thompson was far from finished. Over the next fifteen years he went on countless expeditions to prove his point that tropical ice exploration was valid. And, accompanying him on his trips were the core members of his Quelccaya crew, including Koci and climatologist Keith Mountain. As Mountain told Kevin Krajick, "We've all lost enough skin and blood that no one needs to be told what to do. Something breaks, we fix it. Trouble comes, we know to get out of the way."

Thompson and his team traveled to fifteen countries over five continents, climbing to some of the highest elevations ever to be explored. Along the way they encountered countless hurdles. In 1991 and 1992, while tackling the Guliya ice cap in western China, samples had to be carted across the Ghobi Desert in ancient trucks and kept cool with ice cream. A 1993 hike to Peru's highest peak, Huascarán, was so treacherous that the team ended up living at the drill site for fifty-three days, which resulted in perhaps the record for the longest time spent living at high elevation. And in 1997, before climbing to the Sajama ice cap in Bolivia, Thompson and crew had to participate in a ceremony with local tribesmen who believed it was necessary to appease the mountain deities. All of the efforts were worth it, however, as Thompson began to bring home ice cores that were full of information.

Amazing discoveries and bleak predictions

In late 1997 Thompson made what would prove to be his most important expedition to date when he led of team of researchers from the United States, China, Peru, Russia, and Nepal to explore the Dasuopo Glacier in Tibet. At 26,293 feet, it was, and remains, the world's highest ice-core project. Samples taken from the site yielded an amazingly comprehensive record of the region that spanned over one thousand years. Of particular note were the records that detailed the history of the South Asian Monsoon, which is a climate event that occurs in annual cycles across India, Pakistan, and west toward Africa. Changes in the monsoon cycle can lead to catastrophic droughts or flooding. Thompson's data indicated that a major shift occurred in 1790, which led to a significant drought that lasted for seven years. As a result, more than six hundred thousand people died in India alone.

In February of 2001, Thompson presented his amazing findings at an annual gathering of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. But he had just returned from an expedition to Mount Kilimanjaro in West Africa and he also had some alarming news to share: the ice cap on the mountain was disappearing at an incredible rate. According to Thompson's data, 82 percent of the ice cap had melted between 1912 and 2000, and the rate of disintegration was accelerating. He predicted that by 2015 the cap would be gone. Thompson also revealed that the same phenomenon was happening in other tropical areas as well. At Quelccaya, for example, the cap had shrunk by about one-fifth since he took his first trip there twenty-eight years before.

Some scientists claimed that the melting was due to a combination of natural and man-made factors. Thompson, however, directly linked the melting to accelerated global warming, which is the increased temperature of the earth caused by an increased density of gases (such as carbon monoxide) in the earth's atmosphere. "There is no question in my mind," Thompson explained in his report, which was featured in Time magazine, "that the warming is in part, if not totally, driven by human activity." He pointed to the fact that samples revealed a four-fold increase in dust trapped in the ice and a doubling of carbon monoxide concentrations. Thompson's most troubling revelation was that, based on the analysis of the ice from both Tibet and Africa, the last decade had been the warmest in one thousand years.

Thompson's personal mission

Although Thompson's findings come from the tropics, he feels that his predictions have a wide-reaching effect. "These tropical glaciers are an early-warning system for the climate of the Earth," he told Maren Dougherty of National Geographic. He went on to explain that addressing global warming is the responsibility of everyone: "It's just a matter of time before everyone will realize that we have to do something if we want to maintain the type of civilization we live in." As a result, Thompson and his wife have made it their personal mission to educate people from kids in grade school to university researchers that humans are warming the earth, but that it is not too late to do something about it.

Thompson also made it a personal mission to make marathon expeditions to endangered ice cap sites. "We've got to get these archives before they're gone," he commented to Ned Rozell of Alaska Science Forum. In late 2004, Thompson returned to Quelccaya and the Himalayas, and he and his team scouted out at least thirteen other sites around the world, including peaks in Russia and one on Heard Island, a tiny spot in the Indian Ocean that has never been explored before. Although the science community finally acknowledged that tropical regions are crucial areas of research, funding for such projects was still hard to come by. As a result, Thompson began to seek some nontraditional methods of funding. For example, he has approached private donors such as media mogul Ted Turner (c. 1938–) and companies that focus on outdoor gear, including Lands' End.

In the meantime Thompson and his researchers at Ohio State University, where he is a full professor, study the ice samples that are housed in cold storage. The OSU storage facility is approximately 2,100 square feet and holds ice cores that, if laid end-to-end, would stretch over four miles. It is important to keep them, Thompson explained to National Geographic, because they are living archives. Such archives prove valuable to other researchers at other institutions, and they are important for the future. "Because it's clear," Thompson added, "that in as few as 15 years, you will not be able to go out into the real world to recover that record."

The Indiana Jones of scientists

Thompson's discoveries have made him a very famous man. He makes national headlines on a regular basis, he has been invited to the White House to share his expert opinions, and environmentalists consider him to be a spokesman for the planet. Fellow scientists sometimes doubt the exact timing of his predictions, but they also acknowledge Thompson as a geologist who is fiercely dedicated to his work. According to Harvard University geochemist Daniel Schrag, who spoke with Krajick, "He's the closest living thing to Indiana Jones." A strange description for the quiet, bespectacled Thompson, who does not consider himself to be an adventurer. "I only want the data," he admitted to Krajick. And Thompson seems determined to get the data regardless of his own personal safety. He has a minor heart-valve defect and in 1996 he was diagnosed with severe asthma. Both conditions could prove fatal for someone who climbs to elevated heights. But, as Ned Rozell put it, "Thompson will not rest while the ice is still there."

For More Information


Krajick, Kevin. "Ice Man: Lonnie Thompson Scales the Peaks for Science." Science (October 18, 2002): pp. 518–522.

Merrell, Lolly. "The Vanishing World of Lonnie Thompson." National Geographic Adventure (August 2004).

Reaves, Jessica. "The Dusty Rocks of Kilimanjaro Just Doesn't Have the Same Ring." Time (February 19, 2001).

Web Sites

Dougherty, Maren. "High-Climbing Ice Expert Gets to Core of Climate Change." National Geographic Adventure (July 27, 2004) http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2004/07/0727_040727_globalwarming.html#main (accessed on August 16, 2004).

Lovgren, Stefan. "Day After Tomorrow Ice Age Impossible, Researcher Says." National Geographic News (May 27, 2004) http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2004/05/0527_040527_DayAfter.html (accessed on August 17, 2004).

Rozell, Ned. "Where Science and High Adventure Meet." Alaska Science Forum (April 22, 2004) http://www.gi.alaska.edu/ScienceForum/ASF16/1695.html (accessed on August 17, 2004).

"Time Magazine, CNN Name OSU Geologist One of 'America's Best.'" Ohio State University Press Release. (August 13, 2001) http://www.osu.edu/osu/newsrel/Archive/01-08-13_Lonnie_Thompson_Time-CNN.html (accessed on August 17, 2004).

Wong, Kate. "Himalayan Ice Cores." Scientific American Web site (September 18, 2000) http://www.sciam.com/article.cfm?articleID=000D4E78-7113-1C61-B882809EC588ED9F (accessed on August 17, 2004).

User Contributions:

Comment about this article, ask questions, or add new information about this topic: