Reviewed 8/17/2008

Thin Ice, by Mark Bowen
Unlocking the Secrets of Climate in the World's Highest Mountains
Mark Bowen
New York: Henry Holt & Co., October 2005




ISBN-13 978-0-8050-6443-8
ISBN-10 0-8050-6443-5 463pp. HC/FCI $30.00

The wind was calm the day before Mark Bowen, still acclimating to the height, made his way to the summit camp at 21,500 feet where the ice cores waited. It was calm that day, too — perfect weather for launching the hot air balloon that was to carry those precious cores down the mountain before they could melt. But one last, vital piece of the balloon's support structure had not arrived. Bowen helped with preparations for the risky pre-dawn launch; but the next day dawned with gale-force winds. So Bowen never saw the balloon go up; in fact it never did go up. As Bowen descended to base camp, he passed some 30 porters heading up. They would move the cores in their insulated boxes to the trucks waiting at the roadhead the old-fashioned way: on their backs, in multiple trips, some carrying loads of a hundred pounds or more.

The change of plans did not faze Lonnie Thompson, leader of the expedition to Nevado Sajama. He was well acquainted with the vagaries of mountain weather, and he always had a Plan B. The coring of the glacier cap on Sajama, Bolivia's highest mountain, was the highest he had done (to that point), but far from the first. For twenty years he had sought out high peaks in the tropics on a quest to preserve the climatological information sealed in their vanishing ice before it was lost forever. He and his teams have lugged their heavy drilling equipment to Quelccaya and Huascarán in Peru; to Guliya and Dasuopu in Tibet; to Kilimanjaro in Africa. And their quest is far from finished.

Bowen's narrative makes clear that Dr. Thompson's quest faces impediments unknown to earlier scientific endeavors. In addition to the current political interference documented by Bowen and others, scientists today are impeded by a cultural shift in values. That shift, occurring over many decades, denigrates "pure science": the sort of purposeless investigation1 that used to flourish under government auspices (and in corporate enclaves like the old Bell Laboratories.) Bowen quotes a researcher from Scripps Institution of Oceanography to describe the change.

[Harmon] Craig used to describe the excitement of those days: "Revelle used to walk around the halls [of Scripps] at night; he'd drop in on people's labs and sit down and start talking science. Or he'd bang on your door at midnight and say, 'Hey, I've got an idea!' There was a feeling that the place had a special mission to keep research ships at sea. There were institutional expeditions, in which we'd sail to six or seven different places and measure everything. There were summer expeditions for students. The place had a vision, a feeling that we were pushing at the frontiers of science."

Nowadays, this sort of grand "fishing expedition" is frowned upon by the funding agencies. The influx of management practices from the business world has led them to demand extreme focus in grant proposals, clear explanations of exactly what the research will accomplish and why it will be important. Craig, who in 1998 received the Balzan Prize—the equivalent of a Nobel in the natural sciences—complained, "I'm being damned by reviewers who write that I don't use the scientific method—that is, going in with some nice, carefully outlined hypothesis in which you pretty much know in advance what you're going to find out and what you're going to do with the information after you find it. Well, the scientific method is what you learned in My Weekly Reader when you were in grammar school, but no first-rate scientist uses it. I say, if I knew what I was going to find out, I wouldn't do that study; I would do something else."

– Page 108

Most of Thin Ice is straight adventure story. Bowen, physicist and mountaineer, intertwines two kinds of adventure: the sheer physical adventure of wilderness travel, of climbing and living in arduous conditions on high mountains; and the intellectual adventure of scientific discovery. These tales are all the more gripping because Bowen actually lived them. Also there's the historical adventure of discovering how we got here from there, including a good explanation of the greenhouse effect (pp. 79-80). There is a bit about the politics of global warming — most of it in the first half of Chapter 17, "Solving the Mercer Problem" (the "Solving" starts on p. 301) — but Bowen reserves the real political story for his second book.2 Central to the intellectual adventure is the question of whether the poles or the tropics had/have more influence over the world's climate changes. Prior to Thompson's work, theory favored the poles; his results challenge that theory, evoking a dispute with older scientists who some call the polar mafiosi: Chester Langway, Claude Lorius, and the legendary Willi Dansgaard.

This dispute remains unresolved. As with many aspects of climatology, much remains to be discovered. But the evidence Bowen provides in this book puts the basic fact beyond dispute: Our globe is warming, and the consequences will drastically change all our lives.

In addition to having a firm grasp of the science, Bowen is a good writer. His descriptions are clear and at times approach the level of poetry. The text is enhanced by 16 excellent color photos and graphs of 20th-century global CO2 emissions (p. 121) and Mauna Loa CO3 measurements (p. 123). Bowen provides extensive chapter notes, 428 citations, and a competent index. This book is a thorough and engrossing explanation of one aspect of the investigation of global warming. Typographical errors are few, and negligible. (See the errata page.) The biggest problem I noted — still a slight one — has to do with his explanation of prehistoric Lake Agassiz. On page 13, Bowen seems to discard the entire story of Lake Agassiz, a huge lake that formed in Canada at the end of the last ice age. The story is that it drained into the North Atlantic and shut down the thermohaline circulation (THC), plunging the entire globe into another cold spell. When you reach page 382, you learn that only the shutdown of the THC is bogus; the rest of the Lake Agassiz story is valid.3 Despite this minor objection, I recommend Thin Ice highly, and suggest that the reader follow it with Bowen's next book. The two volumes provide vital perspectives on the urgent question of global warming.

1 Calling pure science "purposeless investigation" is profoundly misleading. It suggests the wastefulness of endless feeding at the public trough with no intention of ever producing results. But the inability to write a competent business plan for a laboratory project does not mean the project will inevitably turn out to be worthless. Indeed, it is rather the inability to see worth in anything that cannot be quantified at its beginning in terms of return on investment that is wasteful and shortsighted. For pure science, if allowed to proceed, has always paid off handsomely (if seldom on a predicted schedule.) Our world itself is the indisputable proof.
2 The second book, also reviewed here, has the straightforward title Censoring Science.
3 The THC is a system of currents, driven by differences in sea-water density, that carries heat from the tropics to northern Europe. Evaporation leaves the northbound water saltier than when it started. Greater in density, it then sinks and returns south. Theory says that a massive pulse of fresh water will stop this circulation and its heat transfer. The problems this raises for conventional views of the risks of AGW are that a) the draining of Lake Agassiz did not shut down the THC, and b) if that enormous amount of fresh water didn't do it, the current, more gradual melting of Greenland's ice sheet will not.
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