Thin Ice: Unlocking the Secrets of Climate in the World's Highest Mountains

Mark Bowen. <i>Henry Holt. $30.</i>

Thin Ice should correct the notion that climatologists are just number-crunching geeks. Mark Bowen finds that the field’s cutting edge isn’t in the lab, but on the dangerously exposed faces of the world’s highest mountains, where scientists defy boredom and death to document global warming.

Thin Ice focuses on the exploits of Lonnie Thompson, the relentless visionary behind the high-altitude climatology movement, one of the most promising areas of global warming research. For 30 years, he’s led expeditions to “every blank on the map he could find,” from the Andes to Kilimanjaro, to drill for ice cores, frozen time capsules that lock in air, dust, and pollution of climates past, and offer solid (literally) evidence of human impacts on the environment. Thompson has now spent more time in the “death zone” above 20,000 feet than almost anyone alive. Even his chief rival admits that Thompson’s insistence that the real climatological action is atop glaciers, not at the poles, has earned him a place “in the ranks of our great explorers.”

Bowen tells Krakaueresque tales of Thompson’s trials (avalanches, altitude sickness, torrential storms turning solar panels into kites, valuable samples plummeting down vertical faces), alternating with a meticulous, if sometimes labored, history of the science. Thin Ice is an occasionally hair-raising picture of an overlooked and surprisingly risky quest that will appeal to science buffs and armchair adventurers alike.