A Harrowing Journey in Search of Climate Clues

I remember the pitch from the producers: I would accompany, on horse and foot, a team of climate scientists to the Andes to film a segment for “Years of Living Dangerously,” Showtime’s ground-breaking series on climate change.

Paul Mayewski, Sanjayan in Andes

Paul Mayewski and Sanjayan filming “Years of Living Dangerously” in the Andes. (© The Years Project/SHOWTIME)

Sitting in a sunny office in New York City with the executive producers, we watched clips of Dr. Paul Mayewski, a genial yet distinguished “ice scientist” from the University of Maine who would serve as our expedition leader. Frankly, the whole storyline sounded rather tame — even a bit predictable.

Yet as viewers will see tonight on the season finale (see preview below), the expedition was anything but.

By drilling and studying ice cores, Paul and his team study an overlooked part of the climate change puzzle: wind. Ice cores contain tiny bubbles that reveal key details about wind patterns, including wind direction and its atmospheric composition. They serve as a historical record, dating back up to 200,000 years, of past rainfall, ocean productivity (marine signals are picked up by wind), even volcanic activity.

Ice cores are literally time capsules from the past. To get them, Paul and his team go to the ends of the Earth. Sometimes not everyone makes it.

On our fast ascent up the glacier, four members of our team, including our number one cameraman, didn’t make it to the top. Then a replacement cameraman was kicked in the head by a pack mule. Our senior guide, a Chilean cowboy, was thrown from his horse on a scree slope and broke his shoulder.

Everyone has since recovered, but I wasn’t kidding when I told the editorial team at Grist that I thought this trip was going to kill me.

Much of our ascent was accomplished in darkness, in frigid moonlit air. Boulders caromed down the insanely steep slopes, unseen but terrifyingly not unheard. We knew something was coming but we couldn’t see from where — so we scrunched up and hoped it wasn’t headed for us, and cursed afterwards in relief.

Things were hardly better at the summit. At the top, peaking out at nearly 20,000 feet [almost 7,000 meters], my oxygen saturation was just 76%. Speaking coherently on camera was next to impossible.

As frightening as these conditions were, they pale in comparison to our findings. (Learn more in this preview of tonight’s episode of “Years of Living Dangerously.”)

According to Paul’s research, climate can change very quickly because wind patterns can shift rapidly. When I asked him how fast, he said, “disaster movie fast.” Shifts in wind flows can turn arable land into desert or bring season-ending, inundating floods. Such changes have happened in the past and possibly collapsed civilizations in Central Europe, Americas, and — more recently — Vikings in Greenland.

Those civilizations faced naturally occurring climate change. This time around, humans are driving it by pumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The rapid change is already happening in the Arctic.

The idea of rapid climate change is certainly alarming, but what worries me most is that this news could reinforce arguments for inaction. Case in point is Fox News’ John Stossel telling 1 million viewers that we can’t do anything about climate change. Then there’s this Forbes post saying we should do less about climate change since the climate is changing anyway.

Don’t believe it. The ice cores Paul extracts from the Andes, Himalayas, Greenland, and Antarctica also reveal the great promise human action can have on climate.

Just as ice cores show us that wind patterns are changing, they also show us the positive impacts of our past actions. In 1970 the U.S. acted in a bipartisan fashion to create the Clean Air Act. Today, the results of that legislation can be seen in the marked decrease of certain pollutants in ice samples.

Similarly, when the U.S. began to remove lead from gasoline in the 1970s, and when the global community regulated ozone via the Montreal Protocol, our efforts were faithfully recorded in ice.

If the U.S. and the rest of the world limit carbon emissions, those actions too will become memorialized in ice. The first steps were just announced by President Obama and the Environmental Protection Agency, with China watching closely; tonight’s episode of “Years of Living Dangerously” (airing at 8 p.m. on Showtime) contains an exclusive interview with President Obama.

I am not giving away the season finale if I tell you that I survived my perilous journey. But our perilous climate story is another matter. The ridge between disaster and safety is narrowing, and we are running out of time.

This is the greatest challenge of our generation. Whatever we do, whatever we believe the solution is, we can’t afford to sit this one out. And our actions (or inactions) will be faithfully recorded in ice for future generations — that is, if the ice itself remains.

M. Sanjayan is an executive vice president and senior scientist at CI. See more of Sanjayan in “Years of Living Dangerously” in this clip of his visit to the CO2 measuring station on Mauna Loa, Hawai’i. 

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