By Caroline Catherman, Dec. 30, 2020 – New research has found a big flaw in one of the most widely accepted theories about earth’s climate, Milutin Milankovitch’s century-old theory of ice ages. This evidence, which echoes past findings, means that some long-term climate predictions could be more inaccurate than scientists realize, the researchers said. But they worry that this vital information won’t become general knowledge for years.
“It takes about a generation of new scientists to remove older ideas and bring newer ideas in,” said Thomas Lowell, professor of geology at the University of Cincinnati, during the recent Comer Climate Conference, an annual national conference held over Zoom this year.
The theory in question proposes that gradual changes in our planet’s movements and position add up over time to vary how much solar radiation reaches Earth. This variation in solar radiation affects whether each hemisphere experiences periods of cooler or warmer summers. Milankovitch predicted that thousands of years of colder summers cause ice ages.
“If you surveyed 100,000 geologists, 99,099 would say that’s correct, in terms of causing ice ages. But it has one big problem,” said Brenda Hall, a professor of glacial & quaternary studies at the University of Maine’s Climate Change Institute.
The theory’s hidden undoing
Milankovitch predicts that ice ages would occur at opposite times in the Northern and Southern Hemispheres. When one hemisphere was having cold summers, and heading towards an ice age, the other would be having warm summers, heading away from an ice age.
But Hall and Lowell’s new research from the Falkland Islands corroborates recent research in New Zealand by suggesting that the two hemispheres experienced the last major ice age, which peaked about 20,000 years ago, at nearly the same time.
These findings, currently undergoing peer review for publication, mean that scientists may not fully understand why the planet goes in and out of ice ages, said Hall.
This, Hall said, is crucial to understanding climate change.
“If we want to have any hope of making climate predictions, we need to know how the different pieces of the system work,” she said.
Hall added that researchers should begin considering other theories. One older theory is the idea that, rather than gradually shifting in and out of ice ages, earth’s climate rapidly changes due to sudden triggers. If true, this would have troubling implications for Earth’s future climate.
“If we can have ice age cycles, these massive changes in climate, because of very small changes … that tells us that a very small change could produce a big reaction. And we’re in the process of initiating one of those changes,” Hall said, referring to human-caused increases in greenhouse gas emissions.
But before many climate researchers will reconsider whether this theory is accurate, they must be convinced that the issue is up for debate.
Scientists are battling to replace a broken theory
Convincing scientists to consider alternative theories is a long process that some people have been attempting since as far back as 1984, when John Mercer published a paper with evidence of simultaneous ice ages.
“I feel like there have been some proposals as to, ‘what else could it be?’” said Meredith Kelly, associate professor of earth science at Dartmouth College. “Until we figure that out, and it’s really well tested, and well-explained, it’s not going to show up in textbooks.”
Lowell said that scientists in older generations are the biggest defenders of Milankovitch because they were taught to regard his theory as fact.
“If you look at the world, and everybody tells you it’s flat for 40 years … and you walk around and you discover that it’s not flat … you’re gonna have problems convincing people who haven’t traveled out of their flat sphere that the earth is round,” Lowell said.
Why Milankovitch’s theory gained acceptance
Several prominent studies have appeared to support Milankovitch’s theory. A 1976 study, for example, found evidence of a correlation between earth’s cycle in and out of ice ages and the so-called Milankovitch cycles. Lowell said these findings were strong enough that many people thought the issue was resolved, even though there was no evidence that this was a cause and effect relationship.
It also took a long time to build evidence against Milankovitch because the Southern Hemisphere wasn’t as well studied as the Northern Hemisphere. When scientists found evidence that the Southern Hemisphere came out of the ice age at the same time as the north, the evidence was initially dismissed as a fluke, said Lowell.
The new generation of scientists is key
“[The Milankovitch Theory] made sense. It wasn’t until you get into the details that you start pulling a thread, and it starts unraveling,” Lowell said. “It’s taken a long time… to get to where we are today.”
Lowell hopes that scientists in the next generation will weave up a new idea with the unraveled Milankovitch thread. For her part, Meredith Kelly has done her best to correct the canonical theory during her 12 years of teaching an intro to geology class, even as she gives her students a textbook that reveres Milankovitch.
“One of the students on the first day asked me if I was going to teach about Milankovitch, and I told her, ‘Yes, but I’m going to tell you that he’s wrong,’” Kelly said with a laugh.
Professors such as Kelly give Lowell hope.
“Science will march on,” he concluded.
Caroline Catherman covers health, environment, and science news at Medill. You can follow her on Twitter at @CECatherman.
Faced with a challenge as mammoth as climate change, scientists are turning to some very tiny organisms for insight — coccolithophores, the single-celled algae that are smaller than a grain of sand.
In order to grow, algae use sunlight to convert carbon dioxide and water into energy in a process called photosynthesis that all plants employ. The algae prefer to take up the lightest of two different forms of carbon, but sometimes resort to the heavier form when carbon dioxide levels in the surrounding water are low.
Louis Claxton, a Ph.D. student at the University of Oxford, uses the ratio of light to heavy carbon trapped in the algae’s fossilized shell to approximate the amount of carbon dioxide in the ocean when it lived. He presented his research at the Comer Climate Conference, an annual conference of global climate scientists that was held virtually this October.
“These things are gorgeous to look at under the microscope,” Claxton said. “And something so small, something that no one really pays much attention to, can hold so much information about our past.”
Right now he examines algae from a period in Earth’s history called the Eocene, which lasted from approximately 34 to 56 million years ago. It was a time marked by hot temperatures, rapid changes in climate and a lack of permanent ice sheets. This was the last such extreme heat spell Earth experienced and scientists believe the period could hold important implications for where today’s warming climate is heading.
“If we can understand how biology responded to changes in carbon dioxide over this period, we may be in a better place to understand how it may change in the future,” Claxton said.
And it is changing.
According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the current amount of atmospheric carbon dioxide exceeds measurements from at least the past 800,000 years. That increase, at a rate unprecedented in modern history, has largely been caused by the burning of fossil fuels and led to surging global temperatures, rising sea levels and severe weather patterns.
“In dealing with these big issues, the history of climate is absolutely essential,” Dr. Richard Alley, a geoscientist at Pennsylvania State University, said during the conference. “History gives us a way to test models.”
By growing algae in his lab and subjecting them to various levels of carbon dioxide, Claxton can create models that predict how ancient algae reacted to similar changes in carbon dioxide levels.
“They are nightmare pets because they are very sensitive to temperature and all sorts of things,” he said. “But I’ve been looking after them for about three or four years, and I’ve gotten quite attached to them.”
Sophie Gill, another Ph.D. student within Claxton’s research group, knows all about that.
“I work on slightly different species because some of the species I work on weren’t evolved during the time that he works on,” she said. “But we’re able to see a common ground [in that] some coccolithophores are not able to cope with very high levels of dissolved [carbon dioxide].”
Gill is currently trying to find the perfect oceanic conditions that will allow the algae to take up more carbon dioxide through photosynthesis than they produce via their calcium carbonate shells. She hopes the algae may someday be used as a more effective carbon sink, absorbing large amounts of carbon dioxide from the ocean’s surface and trapping it within their fossils when they die.
The concept seems ideal on the surface, but Claxton is digging into the past — literally — for any unintended consequences it could have.
“The samples come from about 1,500 meters deep off the coast of Namibia,” he said. “If you were to hold some of the sediment that I was working with in your hand, it looks like… slimy mud that someone’s dug up from the bottom of a puddle.”
Hidden within that mud, however, are the fossilized remains of algae that lived tens of millions of years ago. When Claxton compares their carbon composition to his models, he is able to estimate the carbon dioxide levels in the ocean, and by extent the atmosphere, at the time the algae lived.
So far, his calculations correspond well with existing data from various other methods. Now that Claxton has proven the concept works, he’s ready to jump into the unknown: time periods in the even farther past for which there are no well-constrained data.
“The method that I’m working on to reconstruct carbon dioxide could potentially go back about 200 million years,” he said, referring to how long ago this particular type of algae evolved.
In comparison, ice core records extend to only about 800,000 years.
“We may be missing analogs in Earth’s history that are almost identical to today,” Claxton said. “By identifying those periods, we can perhaps understand what the future may hold.”
Marisa Sloan is a health, environment and science reporter at Medill. You can follow her on Twitter at @sloan_marisa.
The locked office of the late climate scientist Wallace “Wally” Broecker displays a wooden ship’s wheel, mounted on a window-paneled wall behind his former desk. The wheel overlooks the forested campus of Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, where Broecker conducted research for nearly 70 years. It originated from one of LDEO’s first vessels used for ocean chemistry testing in the 1960s, and the choice of its current home is no accident: The captain’s wheel is symbolic of Broecker’s leadership at the institution, says paleoclimatologist and LDEO professor Jerry McManus.
Broecker, who died in February at the age of 87, made significant contributions to the scientific understanding of the oceans, climate and climate change during his long academic career, mentoring several generations of students. Born in Oak Park in 1931 as the second of five children, he received his Ph.D. in geology at Columbia and became an assistant professor there in 1959. Since then, he pioneered the use of carbon isotopes and trace compounds to date and map the oceans, as well as introducing the concept of a “global conveyor” that connects the world’s oceans through heat-driven circulation. Broecker also popularized the phrase “global warming” in a 1975 paper and has been deemed the “grandfather of climate science” by many in the field.
More than 200 researchers and family members celebrated his legacy at the Wally Broecker Symposium in late October, with many of the world’s leading earth scientists in attendance. McManus led the organization of the three-day conference, which took place on the LDEO campus, an hour’s drive north of Columbia’s main campus in Manhattan. Dozens of Broecker’s former students and colleagues presented new research based on his findings, as well as heartfelt and entertaining stories about the late scientist.
Princeton geoscientist Michael Bender opened the symposium with a summary of Broecker’s decades-long career, which he said spanned dozens of research topics and many ambitious experiments. Bender said Broecker first visited LDEO for a summer job in a lab and he learned about the new technology of radiocarbon dating, or measuring isotopes of carbon to determine the age of materials. Broecker’s supervisor was impressed enough to arrange the young scientist’s transfer to Columbia from Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois, for his senior year and asked the 22-year-old to take over the lab.
An innovative Broecker would go on to use radiocarbon dating in 1958 to measure how glaciers affected the depth of a prehistoric lake in Utah. He also pioneered the use of tracking radioactive particles to study circulation in bodies of water, as he did in the 1980s when he poured radium into lakes in Ontario, Canada — with governmental permission — to follow its motion.
“I tried to look at Wally’s work as a whole, and the scope is just completely overwhelming,” said Bender, one of Broecker’s former students. “We were incredibly lucky to have the opportunity to be associated with this man and his science.”
Other researchers from numerous fields credited Broecker’s findings as foundational to their work. Geoscientist Jean Lynch-Stieglitz of the Georgia Institute of Technology said she “found Wally’s fingerprints all over” her research, as she used his model of the ocean “conveyor belt” to track how nutrients and heat circulated in the last 10,000 years. LDEO paleoclimatologist Dorothy Peteet shared the results of her and Broecker’s joint investigation into the causes and timing of glacier retreats during the last ice age.
Presenters also highlighted the scientist’s outspoken views on addressing climate change. Peter Schlosser, an earth scientist at Arizona State University, played a video clip of Broecker’s final address to the scientific community about necessary actions to limit global warming. From his hospital bed in 2018, Broecker said more drastic climate mitigation measures must be considered, such as capturing carbon dioxide from the air or injecting cooling aerosols into the atmosphere. The address was first played at the Planetary Management Symposium, held last year at Arizona State.
“If we are going to prevent the planet from warming up another couple degrees,” Broecker said, “we’re going to have to go to geoengineering.”
Praise of Broecker’s personal character pervaded the symposium with warm testimonies to his values and quirks. He was an “intellectual snow plow” who tackled problems with rigor and confidence, said Princeton geophysicist Daniel Sigman. His passion sometimes overflowed into what LDEO oceanographer Mark Cane called “strategic and effective” tantrums, often digging in his heels against administration and correcting guest speakers in his own class. Broecker was also a lifelong prankster, with stories of his tomfoolery tracing back to high school, when he rarely got caught. More recently, he had a staff member take his place during a video conference and mime the words Broecker was saying off-camera. (He didn’t get away with that one.)
“He had such a human heart,” McManus said, and fellow LDEO faculty member William Ryan called Broecker a “master of kindness.” Numerous attendees said he was an important influence in determining their career path as someone who often opened doors of opportunity. Ahbijit Sanyal, a director at Johnson & Johnson and another former student, said his teacher was “like a father” to him and once used his influence to help Sanyal’s wife immigrate to the U.S.
Yet more often, Broecker played down his status as a prolific researcher, and one scientist said he didn’t care about “personal wealth” or “glory.” He seemingly disliked his fame for popularizing the phrase “global warming” — he once offered his students $250 to find an example of its use before his landmark 1975 paper, though none were successful.
But Broecker paid a lot of attention to young scientists and their success. Encouragement and affirmation goes a long way for junior scientists, said Mayaan Yehudai, a Ph.D. student at LDEO and previously a teaching assistant for two of Broecker’s classes.
“When you’re a student, you don’t always know when you know that you’re qualified,” Yehudai said. “So, to have somebody like that tell me that I’m qualified or to believe in me is very, very meaningful.”
After the first full day of presentations, the visitors attended a ballroom dinner and listened to several heartfelt speeches from Broecker’s family and friends, including several senior members of LDEO. Filmmaker Anna Keyes presented a video centered around an interview with Broecker, her grandfather. His two younger sisters, Bonnie Chapin and Judy Revekop, told stories of growing up with a high-energy and caring Wally.
Broecker didn’t want a memorial, so the symposium was the largest gathering his family has attended in his memory, Revekop said. Nevertheless, she believes he would have appreciated the event.
“I’m sure he would love to be a little something sitting on a corner, watching and enjoying,” she said.
The dinner also featured an outpouring of musical talent. Geophysicist Richard Alley of Pennsylvania State University wrote and performed a song about his colleague’s career on a prerecorded video, drawing laughs from the attendees. Tom Chapin, a brother-in-law of Broecker and Grammy-winning folk singer, also played an original song about the late scientist’s research. His daughters, Abigail and Lily Chapin, later joined him to sing — this time, less about science and more on spiritual unity.
Broecker’s daughter Cynthia Kennedy, who attended the dinner and livestreamed the seminar, said the symposium was “fabulous” and praised the community of scientists it brought together.
“What they did for him was as much as he gave to them, because that’s what kept him going: their curious minds and their youth and their energy,” Kennedy said. “He fed on that, and that’s what made him who he was.”
By Elena Bruess, Oct. 16, 2019 – I ziplined recently with a scientist who told me that her work involved almost 4,000 floating robots and a massive global computer database that could help her predict the future of our world’s climate.
This was during a break in the Comer Climate Conference and the woods behind conference headquarters held many mysteries, including a zipline and now – for me – the world’s most interesting researcher. I quickly scribbled “should probably catch up with her” in a notebook.
I did. She gave a presentation on her work the next day to climate scientists from across the nation gathered at the annual science meetup in southwestern Wisconsin.
My fellow zipliner is Becki Beadling, a Ph.D. Candidate in geosciences at the University of Arizona at Tuscon. Her work involves climate model simulations and in-field observations specifically focusing on climate change in relation to carbon uptake in the Southern Ocean.
A climate model replicates interactions between important factors that drive the climate, such as temperature, salinity, pressure as well as carbon cycling. The climate model database is called the Coupled Model Intercomparison Project – CMIP for short. The project goes hand-in-hand with the U.N.’s recent climate change reports, generating data from modeling centers all over the world. All the centers are running the exact same experiments and all the data is available through this database for anyone involved.
It’s a big system.
Unfortunately the models can be off the mark.
“The only way we can trust these models is by verifying them against past observations, historical observations and what’s happening now. I want to know how well these models represent these properties,” Beadling said, during another conference break. “And then looking into the future, how well the circulations and properties in this region are projected to change.”
According to Beadling, the models give us a range of possible scenarios of what might happen as the planet warms, glaciers melt, sea levels swamp coastlines and drought threatens millions. The comparison between what the computer analyzes and the actual observations can offer climate researchers a better idea of what to expect in the future. The closer the current observation is to the model, the more accurate the model can be to predict the pace and range of future change.
Observing the elements in the oceans can be a time-consuming and expensive task, though. A couple of years ago, Beadling went on a cruise. This was not your average trip to the Bahamas, but rather a research ship that is meant to measure the properties in the ocean. The same as the models: temperature, salinity, dissolved oxygen, nitrate, etc. The researchers release robot floaters called SOCCOM Floats at the same transects of the ocean decade after decade.
Each floater spends 10 days dipping down and back up, beaming data to the researchers on the land and then the cycle continues again.
“It’s very new. Humans could not look at the great abyss of the global ocean, 71% of the Earth’s surface, because we could only go where we go in a ship,” said Joellen Russell, a biogeochemical dynamics professor at the University of Arizona and the chair of Integrative Science. Similar to Beadling, she works with the global database. She also attended the conference. “Now the robots do our work for us, and they keep working day-in and day-out, it doesn’t matter.”
According to Russell, there are just under 4,000 robots floating around right now, as Beadling mentioned.
When consulting the mix of the robot data and the current CMIP simulations, Beadling, Russell and other climate researchers can attempt to predict what our oceans will look like in the next century. Specifically they look to the Southern Ocean.
“When we think about modern climate, roughly 90% of the excess heat that’s trapped on our planet from greenhouse gas emissions has gone into our oceans. And the Southern Ocean is taking up the most,” Beadling said. “Heat and carbon are the most important components when thinking of the past, present and future of climate.”
The additional heat is in large part generated by human-driven emissions from fossil fuels, emissions that create the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide. CO2 holds heat in the atmosphere and is considered the thermostat of climate change. Even with ocean uptake, CO2 levels in the atmosphere have increased by more than 35 percent to more than 400 parts per million since the beginning of the Industrial Age.
According to Beadling, if we can better understand what those climate changes are going to be and how our oceans are going to react to all this warming, then we can have better projections of what we are facing from climate change and how to better prepare. Right now, the ocean is doing us a favor taking in all this carbon. But the question is for how long will it be able to do so and how fast might the Earth warm once ocean uptake of carbon slows or halts all together?
Looking ahead, a lot is uncertain for climate researchers such as Beadling. But, considering the work being done here, a big global database with a few thousand floating robots could eventually do the trick.
Photo at top: Beadling and colleagues prepare to toss the SOCCOM “robot” float in the ocean. The float will be collecting information for around 7 years. (Courtesy of Becki Beadling)
In mid-July, I left my Illinois home and headed to Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport. That’s where I met up with two scientists, a high school teacher and a rising university freshman. Together we boarded a plane to Beijing, China, then Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, situated between China and Russia.
The team of scientists, headed by climatologist Aaron Putnam, are tracking the retreat of glaciers from the past ice age for clues to reveal climate triggers that human-forced climate change may be pushing much harder now.
Mongolia is where our crew of travelers conducted this incredible climate research, and I’ll be reporting on the work from the field: Fox in the Field.
So, let me introduce everyone because, let’s be honest, they’re the reason I’m here.
This whole expedition started with Aaron Putnam, assistant professor with the University of Maine’s School of Earth and Climate Sciences. A few years back, Aaron drafted a National Science Foundation grant proposal. It explained the research he and the team I’m with will be doing on this trip. NSF gave the proposal good reviews but didn’t fund it on that first round.
That didn’t stop Aaron. Instead, he wrote a proposal to the Comer Family Foundation who gave him enough funding to cover his first Mongolian trip in 2014 with Ph.D. candidate Peter Strand. They helped perfect a time machine for clocking elements in rock that could tell them when the rocks became ice-free. Then Aaron wrote a second proposal to the NSF. Again, it was rejected, not an unusual pattern for NSF funding. The Comer Family Foundation agreed to support another year of research, giving Aaron more data, and then NSF funding for a multi-year research program came through.
Speaking of the Comer Family Foundation, I want to mention an exceptionally important individual – Stephanie Comer. She is a member of the Comer family, carrying on the legacy of her father Gary Comer who started the foundation. Not only does the Comer Family Foundation grant young scientists across the country seed money to launch their research, but it is also responsible for creating the Comer Education Campus on Chicago’s South Side. The campus includes the Gary Comer Youth Center, Gary Comer College Prep, Gary Comer Middle and UTMOSTU. The foundation also has a hand in health care by supporting harm reduction-centered syringe access programs. Stephanie Comer, her son and his friend joined us in Mongolia.
Aaron’s NSF funding covers a high school teacher and a recent high school graduate. I mentioned that the Comer Family Foundation is responsible for Gary Comer College Prep, a Noble Network charter high school located in Chicago’s Greater Grand Crossing neighborhood. Jess Stevens (an environmental science teacher at the high school) has gone on all of these trips with Aaron and Peter since 2016. Each time she brings along one of her students. This year that student is Patricia Joyner. She just graduated from Gary Comer College Prep, she will be studying with Aaron and Peter at the University of Maine starting this fall as a science major and as Aaron’s undergraduate researcher.
When we got to Ulaanbaatar we met the other half of our team. Boldoo Baatar, Baysaa Todmandakh and Bagi Gurkhlaajar are our drivers and guides. Bagi’s long-time friendship with the man who runs the Altai National Parks is actually the reason Aaron and Peter gained permits to collect glacial samples. Baldoo’s wife Otgoo Nyamdaa and Baysaa are our cooks. Tumur Batbold – Boldoo and Otgoo’s son and a student at the Mongolian University of Science and Technology along with his classmate Oraza Seribol – are the Mongolian student participants, counterparts of Patricia.
Everyone except for Oraza gathered in Ulaanbaatar for two days where we picked up supplies from a grocery store whose wide range of items reminded us of a Mongolian version of Costco and a generator. We got the generator from an outdoor market where items are sold cheaper than in stores.
From there, we piled into three cars and made the three-day journey to Ulgii, a smaller city in Western Mongolia. That’s where we picked up Oroza.
Next stop: the Altai Mountains to set up camp and start collecting samples.
Now for the science!
So, here’s where things get interesting. In broad terms, Peter’s Ph.D. research involves constructing past glacial chronologies and climate variability using beryllium-10 surface-exposure dating techniques.
What does that mean?
The supernovas in our galaxy are stars dying in an explosion of light and energy. This explosion breaks apart the highly energetic atomic nucleus (the small dense, region at the center of an atom containing positively charged protons and neutrons that have no charge) and hurls these particles through space at near light speed. They’re called cosmogenic rays or, more commonly, cosmic rays.
Due to an interaction with our sun’s magnetic pull, the cosmic rays hit the Earth’s atmosphere in a shower of mostly protons.
These protons, colliding with the atmosphere, rain down streams of secondary particles that interact with the quartz mineral found in rocks, a recipe of one-part silicon and two-parts oxygen. As the particles interact with the quartz, they break apart the silicon and oxygen and leave behind beryllium-10.
And that’s the only way beryllium-10 can be formed – the time machine in the rock. The longer the rock has been exposed to the atmosphere – free of glacial ice – the higher the concentration of beryllium-10, a way to clock the time since the glaciers moved on. That’s what makes what Aaron and Peter are working on so precise. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Despite glaciers appearing to be a solid chunk of ice and snow, they are constantly flowing downward as they grow during ice ages. This means that anything that gets caught in a glacier, gets churned in this conveyor belt until the glaciers begins to recede and tosses aside its debris. And this can happen to rocks, tossed from the glaciers like so many pebbles. While trapped, the glacier not only smooths the rock, but also resets it, decaying all the beryllium-10 back into silicon and oxygen.
Now there are these rocks piling up at the edge of the glacier, with these very distinct characteristics. We call that a moraine. And they once again have access to the secondary particles streaming down from the interaction between cosmic rays and Earth’s atmosphere.
So, beryllium-10 starts forming.
In other words, if a sample is taken that reveals the rock’s quartz to contain 7.6 beryllium-10 atoms, we know that the rock has been exposed to protons for 2 years. The glacier likely receded from the rock only two years before.
Of course, this is just an example, and testing for beryllium-10 is no trivial task, but that gives you an idea of how this all works. The moraine rocks Peter and Aaron are clocking started collecting beryllium-10 when the ice receded thousands of years ago.
So, the next couple of weeks we will be hiking into the Altai Mountain, taking moraine samples and returning them to the United States, where Aaron and Peter will use the information gathered to determine the retreat of glaciers.
Peter will use the data collected in Mongolia, as well as at his other field site in Eastern Tibet to compare the retreat of the glaciers around the world. This will not only reveal how far the glaciers have receded, but also give us an idea of how quickly.
And that’s important. The speed of receding glaciers in the past compared to the present gives us clues about how hard we are pushing climate change with human fossil fuel emissions.
A Journal of Our Research Trip
I met Aaron, Peter, Jess and Patricia at O’Hare International Airport, where we made the 24-hour journey from Chicago to Beijing, China, to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. Preparation for the trip came in the form of a laundry list of items to acquire (such as a headlamp, sleeping mat, nail clippers and more), a practice hike at Swallow Cliff Woods near North Palos Township, and about a dozen vaccines (Bubonic Plague and rabies are both highly prevalent in Mongolia).
Because of the time change we arrive in Mongolia two days later.
Our Mongolian guides greeted us at Ulaanbaatar Airport. Aaron, Peter and Jess walked into the open arms of Boldoo Baatar, Bagi Gurkhlaajar and Tumur Batold. When Aaron met the Mongols on his first trip to Mongolia in 2014, they were hired helpto drive his crew to their field site, prepare food and keep them safe. Three trips and 5 years later, they’ve become family.
Once picked up, we made the 45-minute drive to our hotel. When we got there, I was handed what looked to be a military dog tag. Confused, I asked Boldoo what to do with it, to which he responded with a single word: “Key.”
When I got to my room, I passed out immediately. After traveling for so many hours—always in sunlight—I was ready to crash.
We arrived at our hotel around 1:00 a.m. and I was up again around 7 a.m. Before our scheduled 9 a.m. breakfast I showered and organized my things.
Breakfast was served in a small coffee shop attached to our hotel. A waiter brought everyone the same thing: toast, sliced tomatoes, eggs, ham and a generous squirt of mustard. I looked down at my plate and quietly pulled out one of my MREs – Meals Ready to Eat to maintain my vegan diet.
When I discovered I would be traveling to Mongolia a few months prior to my departure I had images in my head of vegetable bao and fried tofu—Asian cuisine I’d grown used to feasting on in the States. I imagined eating like a vegetable queen.
But Mongolia is one of the most meat-heavy places on earth. Due to the nomadic history of the country and the firm ground that prevents gardening, meat and milk are the two most common foods. It’s worked for the Mongols for centuries but wasn’t going to work for someone like me—a vegan for 4 years.
That’s why I packed myself two months’ worth of military-style food. Though I was only in Mongolia for one month, Aaron and I were concerned about me either not having enough to eat and getting sick, or my bag getting lost in transit and me being foodless. Because of that, I divided my hiking gear and food into two different bags. Luckily, all of my bags made it, giving me a surplus of food.
After breakfast, Boldoo and Tumur picked up Aaron, Peter and me. We headed to immigration where Peter and I waited to receive visas to stay in the country for more than 30 days. Tumur snagged a number from a machine, like a grocery store deli, and we waited to be called.
When we returned to the hotel, everyone was ready for lunch.
We walked back to the hotel after lunch and split apart again, each heading to our rooms. Desperate to beat my jetlag by not sleeping during the day, I read Ghenghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World. Only, reading brought me to the brink of sleep, so I decided to walk up and down the hotel stairs, getting my blood pumping, and hoping that the activity would keep me awake until dinner.
Our next meal turned out to be well worth the wait. Our guides picked us up and drove us to an Afghan restaurant called Hazara where our table was piled high with naan, samosa, butter chicken and more. I filled my plate high with rice, dal and naan, eating heartily and thinking about how any spoonful could be my last filled with something other than an MRE for weeks.
I wake up at 1:00 a.m., 3:00 a.m., and 4:00 a.m.
I couldn’t get back to sleep, so I read through groggy eyes.
Breakfast was set for 8:00 a.m. – back downstairs to the little coffee shop with my MRE oatmeal in hand.
On the menu I saw vegetable juice and excitedly made the order, only to be handed a tomato milkshake. I smiled at my server then pushed the dairy-made beverage to the other side of the table, offering it to Aaron when he entered.
While I spooned up oatmeal, the rest of the crew ate salad covered in orange marmalade and chicken sandwiches.
After breakfast, Boldoo picked up Aaron, Peter and me to grab some miscellaneous items from the Ulaanbaatar black market. Jess and Patricia went with Tumur and his mother Otgoo Nyamdaa. She became the assistant chef on our trip.
We arrived in a massive lot that looked almost like a flea market except that all of the “shops” were built out of storage units stacked on top of each other. We followed Boldoo as he navigated the winding path, leading us to a storage unit piled high with generators. We buy the generator from
Boldooa man wearing a shirt decorated with marijuana leaves, and sunglasses despite the cloudy sky overhead and head off to buying other supplies.
After purchasing a food tent and 12 chairs, we returned to pick up the generator and watched same man who had helped us before snip off the plug and start gnawing on the protective covering to reveal the wire inside. He then fed the wires through a new plug, allowing the generator to be plugged into American outlets.
As the men who’d sold us our goods helped load Boldoo’s pickup truck, we received a call from Jess asking how she should pay for groceries. That’s when Aaron and Peter realized neither of them had given her money. So, we piled into the truck and headed to the grocery store. There, we picked up pickles, meat, ramen and a lot of Snickers bars. These bars functioned as snacks on the go, second breakfasts and desserts.
Once everything was sorted out, we headed to a Chinese restaurant where we met Baysaa, our primary chef on the trip. Everyone ate rice and lamb ribs and Jasmin tea (only rice and tea for me!). While I nibbled on bread, Tumur attempted to teach Patricia Mongolian words, while Patricia taught Tumur Spanish.
On a gray and stormy morning, we piled into three off-road vehicles and headed to Ulgii, a city in western Mongolia that would end up being our final stop in civilization before heading into the Altais.
The drive covered three nauseating days of car sickness as we navigated sharply winding roads and steep dips. Between breaks at gers for lunch where bone stew and milk tea were served and an impromptu stop to watch about 100 children under the age of 7 race horses, we sped across the rugged terrain. The feeling of the drive oscillated between Disney World’s Raging Mountain and the swinging Viking ships found at every amusement park under the sun. There were times
Multiple stops to deal with one of the car’s faulty fuel pumps made the stomach-churning drive even worse. Each time this happened, we squeezed four people into the back seat of a pickup truck and left the broken car behind to be “fixed”—or at least functional enough to carry on. In order to fit, we threw caution to the wind, and with it, our use of seat belts. Needless to say, whenever we hit a bump our heads collided with the ceiling.
Toilet facilities meant stopping for a squat behind boulders or tall tufts of grass.
On the second evening of our drive we slept under a starlit sky in our four-season tents on a night with weather so perfect it wrapped us in a blanket of warmth and lulled us to sleep.
Our sleeping bags felt like home compared to the middle school dorms our Mongolian guides had found for us to stay in the night before. The school where we had been invited to spend the night had suspicious holes in the walls of unknown origins, wallpaper on the floors and bedframes piled with uneven cardboard under the 2-inch-thick mattresses.
As we walked down the creaking, uneven hall to our rooms, Jess said she was getting “serious Resident Evil vibes.”
All of that melted into a dream as we got back on the road and I watched the landscape shift from city, to desert, to valley, to mountain.
We spent two days in Ulgii, meeting the last official member of the team, Oraza Serikbol. Like Tumur, he is a student at the Mongolian University of Science and Technology (MUST). By inviting MUST students to join the expedition, Aaron has not only found advocated to help obtain permission to sample boulder’s in Mongolia, but he has also provided an incredible opportunity for young Mongolians to see a part of their country they otherwise may never have ventured to.
We left Ulgii and made our way to the first campsite.
After a long day’s drive and setting up camp, we ate dinner—curtesy of Baysaa and Otgoo—and went to sleep.
In the morning the group ate a savory breakfast of sausages, pickled vegetables and bread with a cheese so glossy everyone double checked to ensure that the plastic covering had been removed, then left behind our guides and approached the base of the mountain. Dark clouds overhead combined with the brisk morning air had convinced me to put on my base layer, sweater, winter coat and raincoat, which made mobility awkward. Our packs were weighed down with water bottles, rain clothes, notebooks and about a pound per person of rice for lunch.
The tools meant for sample collection were divided up among the group. We learned quickly that the power drill, with its weight, hindered a balanced climb and, with its odd shape, made for an impossible fit inside a hiking pack.
What looked to be a short climb from the bottom of the mountain turned into an hour of heaving loudly and heavy steps. Often, I pushed ahead of the group to snap pictures of their climb only to bend over and grab my cramping side before having time to get out my camera.
Between a gasping breath, I turned to Tumur and joked, “So, you do this all the time, right? Just your morning workout?”
“Yep,” he said, before raising his eyebrows and pushing his lips together to make a straight line. The line shifted into a smile as he let out his own heavy breath. “This is hard.”
Boldoo likes to call Tumur “city boy” because he was raised in Ulaanbaatar. While the city’s diameter is made up of sky-scraping mountains, climbing them for fun isn’t a typical pastime. Tumur only gets this kind of exercise when Aaron and Peter travel to Mongolia.
When we finally made it to a good moraine for sample collections, the clouds had split, and the sun glistened off the tips of the green and yellow grass. We unhooked our packs and let them crash to the ground. Mine made a satisfying clunk as a water bottle carabined to the side made contact with bedrock, sending the water sloshing back and forth.
Tumur and Oraza hopped from rock to rock, bending down to pick up pebbles or to get a better look at scratches made in large pieces of stone. Jess and Patricia—the last two to make it up the mountain—sat down to catch their breath. Aaron and Peter walked through the low grass, setting their hands on boulders and letting their palms run across the tops.
They were feeling for the smooth polish that identifies boulders as having lived inside a now-receded glacier.
Eventually, Peter found one that seemed sufficient and called the student scientists over to feel the boulder’s surface for themselves.
Then, Aaron instructed everyone to get out their field books and start taking notes.
Before any samples could be collected, the crew drew the boulder and wrote out a list of characteristics, such as its size and shape.
An ideal sample fits several criteria:
It has a smooth polish that characterizes it as having been processed within a glacier
It’s rounded, demonstrating that significant pieces haven’t been chipped off
The top surface has not been eroded by outside forces, such as bird excrement
It sits at the top of a hill and its bottom is fully or mostly visible, showing that it had to have been set into place by the force of a glacier
It’s large, so it could not have been rolled over easily, changing the placement of where secondary particles from streams of cosmic rays strike the surface and generate beryllium-10.
Not every boulder meets all these standards, but those are the general tells as to whether a boulder would make a good sample or not.
While jotting down the boulder’s description, Patricia asked questions: “Would you consider this a large- or medium-sized boulder?” and “What’s the scientific name for its shape?”
Her questions are welcome and encouraged.
A week earlier, as we sat in an Ulaanbaatar Korean-inspired restaurant, Aaron had passed on some advice to Patricia and Tumur given to him by glaciologist George Denton, his Ph.D. advisor and Peter’s master’s advisor at the University of Maine.
“Science is the asking of good questions,” Aaron relayed. “So, ask lots of questions.”
During the first field day, that mostly meant asking, “Am I doing this right?” and “Can you help me?”
That was particularly true when it came to Tumur, Patricia and Oraza learning how to take samples.
Tumur picked up the drill and began making small dents in the boulder. Aaron instructed him to make the dents in a straight line to prevent the risk of getting equipment stuck. With four or five dents formed, Tumur placed the drill back into each hole and pushed firmly against it to deepen the dents into finger-length tunnels.
Then, Peter showed Oraza how to insert shims and wedges into the holes. By placing wedges between two shims and hitting them with a hammer, the rock is forced to split, releasing the desired sample. But there’s a trick to getting out the perfect sample. Once the shims and wedges were in place, Oraza was instructed to start at one end and hit the wedge until the sound echoing off the hammer grew to a high-pitched ding. Then he moved to the next wedge and did the same, constantly moving down the line until reaching the last wedge, then starting over.
Ultimately, we heard a crack.
“Yes! Beautiful,” Aaron said.
The sample was exactly what Aaron and Peter were hoping for. It was long and thin, and full of quartz, the mineral needed to time the retreat of the last glaciers as the boulders broke free of the ice.
Before packaging up the sample, Peter called Patricia over to the boulder and handed her a brick-sized GPS, which is used to identify the exact coordinates of the sample. Gathering that information takes about 5 minutes as the GPS beeps to assure us it is doing its job.
Peter then took out his iPad and opened an application that maps the skyline. This is important because when the information is entered in an algorithm it can tell Aaron and Peter how the secondary cosmic rays hit the surface of the boulder.
Finally, photographs were taken of the boulder, the samples were placed into a canvas bag, and the crew was ready to move onto the next boulder.
We had to walk for quite some time before coming across a boulder that met enough of the correct criteria to make a good sample.
At dinner the night before, Aaron and Peter had said they weren’t sure how many samples they’d get the next day.
“We just don’t know how many boulders we’ll be able to sample from until we’re there,” Peter had said.
As I sipped sugarless black tea and stared up at the mountain we were scheduled to climb the following day, I’d thought, “How can that be? There are so many rocks up there.”
Trudging through wildflowers and stepping over jagged rocks, I watched the team run their hands over car-sized boulders and realized what it takes to find a good sample.
As we moved from one rock to the next, Aaron and Peter sat back while the student scientists taught each other the skills they’d learned. Acting as middle-man Tumur translated between Patricia who only speaks English and Oraza who only speaks Mongolian and Kazakh.
After a quick lunch and an excursion over a waterfall, the weather shifted, and we got caught in a rain shower. We rushed to slip into rain pants and cover our packs just as the storm picked up and the water turned cold.
But even the rain couldn’t stop the team. As our fingers numbed and our bodies shivered, we hit a stroke of good luck in the form of three boulders side-by-side, perfectly situated for sample gathering.
In a silent agreement, Tumur, Patricia and Oraza picked up equipment and began to divide and conquer. Tumur drilled, Oraza hammered, Patricia obtained the locations using a GPS. They moved like a well-oiled machine.
“We have enough for the trip,” said Aaron. “But I hate leaving any trace behind.”
The team moved on to their final boulder of the day.
This boulder was huge, round and smooth.
As we approached it, Peter said, “Tumur, what do you think?”
Tumur set his hand on the rock and shrugged.
“Seems okay,” he said.
“And Patricia, how does this compare to some of the other rocks we’ve been using?” Peter asked causing Patricia to set her pencil down and look hard at the boulder.
“It’s buried in the ground,” she answered with a high-pitched tilt to the end of the statement making it almost sound like a question.
Peter agreed and explained that though the boulder was buried, it met other criteria that made it a good boulder to take samples from.
So, as the rain poured and the wind pressed our clothes hard against our bodies, Tumur, Patricia and Oraza collected the last sample on the first day of the field season.
Just as the boulder began to split, the weather cleared.
The collected samples sat at the bottom of our packs, along with the extraction equipment making our already-heavy packs even heavier, but none of us minded because for the first time since morning the sun was shining into the valley.
The next few days carried on in a similar fashion, except for one major difference. Patricia had begun to develop stomach pains. At first, it didn’t seem like something to worry about. But as the days went on, her pain increased.
We had a plan. It was a good plan. It was a well thought through plan.
But the day had something else in mind.
We woke up and began packing up the camp to move to the next site. Once on the road, the journey should have taken no more than five hours.
Ideally, we would head to our new spot and the next day Aaron and Boldoo would head back to Ulgii to pick up Stephanie Comer, her son Luca Craigie, 16, and his friend Enzo Filippetto, 16. If Patricia was still in pain then, she could join Aaron and Boldoo and visit an Ulgii doctor.
But as we drove along and Patricia’s cries of pain grew, we hit a checkpoint that changed our plans completely.
Our three cars came to a river that should have been low enough to cross—but it wasn’t. It sped past in a wave of bubbles and kicked up stones. Clearly, the rain we had been having up in the mountains had caused the river to flood, making it appear impossible to cross.
But “impossible” isn’t in the Mongols’ vocabulary.
Boldoo, Baysaa and Bagi lined their cars up, preparing to tie them together, front to back. Boldoo’s truck being the biggest was set to role into the river first, followed by the other cars tethered using orange and purple towing rope.
But in the distance, Aaron—who had been pacing uneasily for some time—noticed Patricia hunched in a ball due to stomach cramps. Jess stood over her with concern.
I watched as Aaron walked over to them, helped Patricia up and moved them closer to the larger group.
After a hushed conversation between Aaron and Boldoo, it was decided that instead of crossing the river we would all return to Ulgii to get Patricia to a hospital. So, we piled back into the cars and our guides entered “Ulgii” into their GPS’.
Again–we had a plan. It was a well thought through plan.
But the day had something else in mind.
Once back on the road, the drive should have taken no more than six hours.
Our coordinates were set, and the Mongols were doing what they do best—pretending to be race car drivers, flying up hills and splashing through streams.
But as we approached a spot where there should have been a bridge, a Kazakh man appeared almost out of thin air on his motorcycle. We never caught his name, so he will forever go down in history as “Motorcycle Man.”
Motorcycle Man informed our drivers that the road the GPS was leading us toward was only available in the wintertime when everything was frozen. But he assured us there was another way to get to Ulgii; he offered to show us.
This led to our back tracking, then taking a turn into a large grassy landscape that quickly revealed itself to be boggy due to the recent influx of rain in the area. Almost instantly, Bagi’s car got stuck in the mud. Boldoo attached the same rope he had originally planned to use to cross the river onto the back of his truck and the front of Bagi’s car. The car was freed instantly.
But almost as quickly, Boldoo’s truck got stuck. The tires were completely buried all the way up to the underside. I learned the term for this is misshap – “beached it.”
Everyone hopped out of the cars they were in to help out. Immediately, we were hit with the heat of the sun and thousands of swarming mosquitos. Because we had all assumed the trip would be a simple one that morning, our sunscreen and bug spray was buried and initially unreachable.
As we unloaded everything from the back of Boldoo’s truck into a pile, in the hope of making it lighter and therefore easier to move, we found the bug spray and lathered ourselves in it.
Then we got to work.
Tumur and Oraza took shovels and began digging out the tires while the rest of us collected rocks to slide under the tires as a sort of make-shift road.
While this was happening, Motorcycle Man lounged against his bike watching us. Eventually he turned and left. We assumed that would be the last of him, but he ended up returning with two other Kazakhs who jumped in to help us without skipping a beat.
With everyone working together, we were finally able to free the truck after three hours and get it out of the bog.
“What else could possibly go wrong?” I’d asked myself.
That was right around the time we received 4G again and the Mongols’ phones started going into action.. As we made a stop in a small village, so Boldoo could check something on his truck, Otgoo informed me with tears in her eyes that her best friend had passed away that day.
I bounced out of the car and raced to her side to squeeze her in a hug as she sobbed. That was the hardest moment of the day. The truck could be dug out with a bit of elbow grease. But Otgoo’s pain couldn’t be MacGyvered away. And Patricia needed a hospital.
We drove the rest of the way in silence. We arrived in Ulgii around 8:30 p.m. and drove directly to the hospital, an old and somewhat shattered building.
After a prescription was written for Patricia, Jess got her out of there, despite the protest of the hospital workers. The two were overwhelmed and upset. Yet, the trip was technically a success. Within hours of Patricia taking the medicine, she started to feel much better and we knew she would be safe to return to the field in a couple days.
We spent the day in Ulgii eating hotpot and grocery shopping.
Around dinnertime, Stephanie, her son and his friend arrived, and we went out to eat together.
We discussed the disastrous day we’d had before and collectively held our breath hoping we wouldn’t run into anything that unfortunate again.
The next day was spent bumping along back roads to get to the campground we were supposed to already have been set up at 2 days prior.
As we entered the national park we discovered the mud to be wet and soft, which was stressful because of the loud revving sound the engines made as the cars pushed up hill, and because the memory of digging the truck out of the mu for three hours played on repeat in all of our minds.
Eventually we made it to the peak of a large hill, right above where our camp would end up being. There, we discovered a beautiful monument made up of multicolored fabric and piled rocks. Monuments like this are all over Mongolia, often alongside roads for travelers to pass. When approaching a monument, one is supposed to circle it three times clockwise, tossing small pebbles onto its flat surface, or leaving offerings for the spirits such as animal fat or alcohol.
The peak also had something else: a man with a horse and an eagle. He would forever be referred to as “Eagle guy.” For a small fee visitors of the park could take pictures holding the humongous bird. Tumur saw me staring fondly at the majestic creature and asked if I’d like a picture. Of course, I said yes. Then, one by one everyone filed in to get their picture taken with the eagle.
While I admit I was the first in line, as each member of the group walked up to take their picture, a knot started forming in my stomach. I’ve heard the horrors of wildlife tourism and worried I was contributing to the poor treatment of animals. I asked Otgoo as Eagle Man how he handles owning such a large creature. He said he takes the bird out hunting regularly, only bringing the bird out for pictures on warmer days. In a year or so, he will release the eagle to the wild, rather than have it spend its entire life as his pet. This made me feel less guilty. And either way, the bird was so heavy. Clearly it was eating well. I’d like to imagine some of the money we used to get our pictures taken goes toward the care of the eagle—though I’ll never be able to confirm that.
We got back in our cars and drove down the other side of the hill. When the land flattened out a bit, we set up camp and ate bread and coffee, waiting for a delicious dinner prepared by Baysaa and Otgoo.
After dinner, we pulled our chairs out of the dinning tent we’d set up and sat in the open air, watching the birds fly overhead and the mountains glisten as the sun set.
Outside the rain beat down on our tents like little beads bouncing off the tightly held fabric. Despite everything inside of me begging me to stay tucked in the warmth of my sleeping bag, I knew our only having two sampling days in the park meant everyone needed to be awake and alert on time. But as I got dressed and crawled out of my tent, I discovered Jess was the only other person awake. I checked my watch—7 a.m. Had plans been changed in during the guitar playing the night before?
We’d learn later that the Mongols refuse to come out of their tents in a heavy rain. Because Baysaa (our chef) also follows this unspoken rule, and because we needed breakfast in order to head out for the day, it didn’t make sense for anyone to come out into wet weather until the Mongols emerged first.
After about another hour, everyone was awake and eating. Some ate toast; others ate eggs and sausage.
We headed out in small groups. The first to leave were Peter, Oraza, Tumur and I. Next were Aaron and the Comer crew, followed by Jess and Patricia. Our camp sat on the edge of a massive lateral moraine. In order to collect the desired samples we had to climb down the edge through spongy, wet grass and steep rocky hills.
Peter wanted to collect samples from the flat ground where a glacier likely sat thousands of years ago, but as we made it down to flat land he quickly realized there weren’t as many boulders to sample as he and Aaron had hoped. Still, he found some; it simply meant longer walks between samples.
We’d experienced rain on and off throughout the day. The cold seeped through our jackets making us shiver. I walked in circles or huddled in a ball to stay warm as I watched Oraza, Tumur and Patricia chip away at boulders and stick samples in canvas bags.
The rain finally cleared when we decided to head back. At some point earlier on, Luca and Enzo decided to leave the group and attempt to climb a mountain. Stephanie and I split off to find them only to discover they had climbed a third of the way up. We called to them and watched as they slid their way down to lower ground where we met them on our way back.
The science team hung back to take drone images while we walked back to camp. Between the four of us, we were sure we would be able to find our way. But after about two hours of walking up hill and slipping into knee-high wetlands we started to question if we were lost. The walk down hadn’t seemed so long, and all of the moraines started looking the same. With so many hills blocking our view from above and below we had no idea whether we’d passed our camp or if we had more to walk.
We calmed ourselves only to come over a hill and see nothing but an endless sprawl of moraines.
We did miraculously eventually find our camp, exhausted and relieved.
An hour later the rest of the team strolled in—and just in time. Almost as soon as they appeared a film of fog crept over the moraines and into the valley creating an impossible wall of white. Finding camp with clear air had been difficult enough. I can’t imagine what we’d have done had the fog hit a couple hours earlier.
Despite the unfortunate weather of the day before, we woke to a perfectly clear sky. The sun shone down and gleamed off the tips of the glaciers across from our camp.
Aaron and Peter had prepared for us to hike down into the valley over very young moraines (maybe even less than 100 years old) and walk onto an actively melting glacier.
Walking down the moraine was a challenge for everyone. While older moraines are covered in foliage and firmly set in place, these young moraines were more like a sand dune covered in boulders. There was a constant fear of falling or the rocks rolling out from under our feet. On the way down I stepped down and the ground crumbled away from me, causing me to slide a few feet before stopping as my shin slammed into a sturdy boulder. I gritted my teeth and ignored the swollen throbbing, determined to finish my descent quickly.
As usual, Peter and Oraza touched down first, followed by me and the Comer crew. Aaron had originally been keeping stride with Peter until he realized Patricia struggling at the top of a hill and hiked back up to help Tumur and Jess show her the way down.
Once we all got on the ground, Peter led us to the glacier’s edge, and we stepped on. The ground was lumpy and slightly slippery, with rocks and animal bones melting their way through to the surface, We hopped over the most beautifully clear water, admiring the way it snaked it’s way left and right, waterfalling into deep caverns too dark for us to spot the bottom only to reemerge elsewhere down the glacier.
Aaron and Peter wanted to collect samples from rocks as they poked through the glacier ice or sat atop it on puckered ledges that made the glacier look like it was putting the rocks on display to see if any beryllium-10 would be present. Their assumption is that there won’t be, but there’s no way to be certain until they process the samples back home.
The field day was cut short due to our long hike we’d had the day before, so after lunch we packed up our backs and headed back up the moraine. We took a different path up than we did to come down, which initially appeared more stable until I stepped into sand-covered sludge that came up to my calves and caked my feet.
Hiking up a moraine is hard. Hiking up a moraine while carrying a 70-liter hiking pack is harder yet. Hiking up a moraine while carrying a 70-liter hiking pack and having your feet caked in heavy, wet sand is even harder. Still, I knew stopping for breaks would only make the already seemingly endless walk even longer, so I kept moving until my back ached and my feet cramped.
This time, we stayed together on our walk back to camp, arriving just as a light shower moved in. But the rain couldn’t change the fact that we’d had an incredible day, which is wonderful because it was the last field day for the Comer crew, Patricia and Jess. The next day they’d head home.
We hugged a lot as our groups prepared to separate. Packing up camp, we helped each other take down tents and wrap up boxes of food. Patricia, Jess and I discussed our favorite parts of being together on this incredible journey, collectively wishing they could stay until the end. But we knew that wasn’t possible. The day I return to Chicago will find Jess back in the classroom, with only a week before Patricia heads to college.
When everything was packed, we climbed into different cars and made our way back up the mountain to where we’d seen the shrine a few days prior. While some of the group walked around the ribbon laden monument, the man hired to drive the crew going home ran into Eagle Guy and offered him a seat in his car. To all our surprise and delight, Eagle Guy invited us to his family ger, which is where we found ourselves as we exited the border of the national park.
There, we were offered airag, a traditional Mongolian beverage made from fermented horse milk. Our Mongolian guides slurped up bowls of the white-colored wine, while the Westerners smiled and held their bowls in their laps, only bringing them to their lips when Eagle Guy’s family gestured for everyone to take a sip.
Peter and I snuck ours to Bagi who accepted them with a nod and a “thank you.”
We split up shortly after visiting Eagle Guy’s home – half heading in the direction of Ulgii and the rest heading to Khovd Gol (river) where we would set up our next camp.
Some members of the team of 15 had left and we’d dwindled down to only 10. It felt odd not being able to point out beautiful landscapes as we drove to Jess or setting up camp without watching Patricia determinately hammer in the stakes on her own. I hoped that their trip home would go smoothly and feel shorter than it was. But I also knew it would be a few weeks before I’d be able to hear any updates for myself.
Our new camp was isolated. Not only from 4G data, but from people. As we drove up alongside a breathtaking river, passing rock burials and distant trees, we noticed there were no other people in site This wasn’t necessarily unusual considering we’d rarely encountered people at the other field sites, but we did quickly learn there was a reason for this particular spots vacancy: mosquitos. They buzzed around our heads, bit our bottoms as we squatted to relieve ourselves, crawled on our food as we ate lunch and dinner. It was miserable. No amount of smoked yak feces or bug spray could stop them. Still, Aaron and Peter had chosen the spot for a reason and samples needed to be taken.
Our next camp was only about a 2-hour drive away at Khurgan Nuur (lake). Though Peter informed me we could have stayed at our previous camp much longer, the mosquitos had forced us to move on.
Our final campground was the most beautiful landscape I’ve ever seen. We staked our tents right next to the lake, whose cool breeze prevented bothersome mosquitos from making an appearance. On the other side of the lake the glaciers towered over, creating a wall of rock, snow and trees. Herders road their horses across the grassy hills, while their goats and sheep ate their way through the greenery. It was perfect.
The first day of sampling surprised us all. As we walked along the flat moraines we found a number of gigantic rocks, but years of harsh weather and rock-climbing goats had eroded the surfaces making them poor samples. Some were collected, of course, but not as many as I think anyone expected as we drove up to the camp.
The next day Bagi drove the science crew to a few hills that Aaron and Peter had sampled from in the past. We spent the day hiking to the top, taking drone images of the landscape and eating bread and canned cow meat (I of course refrained from the meat, though even if I were a carnivore I believe I’d have steered clear as it literally looked like cat food).
That night as we ate huushuur (an empanada-like dish made from folded and stuffed fried dough) and drank Russian beer and vodka, Peter made an enouncement. The next day would be a rest day. Everyone had worked so hard this season, he’d said, that we all deserved a break to enjoy the countryside.
But when we woke up the next morning the sky was too clear, the weather too perfectly calm for Peter to pass up the chance to take good drone images. So, he, Oraza and Tumur left to do work on our day off.
When they returned, they regretted their decision. As the drone returned from its fourth or fifth flight, an eagle attacked it, sending it spinning toward the ground. It’s a good thing the University of Maine has drone insurance, though Peter said he isn’t sure it covers eagle attacks. Time will tell.
I awoke to a rainstorm. Groggily, I forced myself out of my sleeping bag and began packing up my belongings.
The field season was over, and it was time to head back to civilization.
The rain persisted as we took down our tents and loaded up the cars for the last time. After a breakfast of oatmeal, bread and eggs we left behind our stunning campsite.
We drove through storming rivers and across poorly built bridges. At one point we stopped and Oraza an Tumur collected a sample as the rain raged on.
Our first stop was Oraza’s summer ger. After about a four-hour drive we encountered his father herding his animals up a hill on horseback. We followed him to the ger where Oraza’s mother, two sisters, a younger brother and dog greeted us. The dog, a friendly jumper, loved to pounce onto me as I passed, resting his front paws on my arms while maintaining eye contact as if begging me to give him attention.
While I ate way too much bread, everyone else devoured steaming milk tea, chocolate cakes and a traditional Kazakh meal comprised of a lamb head placed atop a pile of flat noodles. I sipped my tea, made from grass, while the rest of the group took out Swiss army knives and tore cooked meat fromf a lamb’s head and shared food from the platter at the center of the table.
We returned to our cars and drove the five hours back to Ulgii where we stayed the night in a hotel with each of our rooms missing at least one essential thing (e.g. toilet paper, soap, working faucets).
Peter and I hoped we to camp in Ulaanbaatar for the next few nights. He and Aaron had previously shared horror stories about some of the hotels the Mongols had found for them on other trips.
But the Mongols are the drivers and in the end they decide where we stay while on the road. Their desire: no more camping. So, we ended up staying in hotels, though to my surprise each one we slept in was cleaner and nicer than the one proceeding it.
Our drive went smoothly, allowing us to arrive in Ulaanbaatar 3 days later in the middle of the afternoon. We were dropped off at one of the city’s best hotels, the Chinggis Khaan Hotel which was by far the nicest place we’d stayed since arriving in Mongolia.
Peter and I met with the Mongols for lunch. We went to a mall where everyone ordered hotpot, while I ate food from a vegan restaurant a short walk away. That’s where we met Uyunga Botbold (Boldoo and Otgoo’s daughter). She works in an office above the floor of the mall where we ate, and she decided to take her lunch break to sit with us and ask us about the field season.
After lunch Peter, Tumur, Oraza and I went to the National Museum of Mongolia where we walked the three floors and learned about the history of Mongolian wardrobes, gers, toys and more.
Later we met up with Boldoo and Otgoo for a mouth-wateringly good dinner at Hazara, the Afghani restaurant we’d eaten at on our first night in Mongolia.
Before arriving in Ulaanbaatar, Peter and I got made reservations at the Chinggis Khaan Hotel for six nights. But as we waited to get picked up the next morning, we received a message from Boldoo explaining that the hotel was kicking us out because they were overbooked.
Shocked, we gathered our belonging and waited for Bagi to pick us up. He drove us to the Batbold’s apartment where Peter, Tumur and Oraza sorted, weighed and packaged each sample. This was done in the apartment building’s parking garage because no other place was available.
When the samples were fully prepared for shipping, we went to an American-style restaurant called The California where we ordered salad, sushi, milk shakes and French fries.
After lunch, we were taken to the Blue Sky Hotel,h was exponentially nicer then than any place we’d stayed. The Blue Sky sits next to the Ulaanbaatar square, has a top floor lounge where cocktails and dinners are served, an all-you-can-eat buffet for breakfast and a gym. I would end up taking advantage of all of these facilities during my time at the hotel.
From there, Tumur escorted Peter, Oraza and me to a throat singing performance where we saw witnessed traditional Mongolian song and dance.
We spend the morning souvenir shopping before meeting up with Oraza and Tumur’s geology professor Uyanga Bold. Bold serves a fundamental role in assisting Aaron and Peter in getting all the paperwork needed to enter the country and ship back the samples. With her help, Peter was able to pass off his four boxes of samples to a man in charge of shipping, before we all went to eat Korean food for lunch.
On the 17th Bagi, Baysaa (plus his golden retriever named Suzie), Tumur and Oraza met us at our hotel to take Peter and me on an adventure. We drove about an hour out of the city on unpaved roads to the largest monument of Genghis Khan in the country. The metal man sits proudly atop a massive horse, dressed ready for battle.
After climbing a winding staircase with halls just big enough for a single-file line of people to move up or down we arrived at the horse’s head and looked out at the Mongolian backdrop. It was beautiful… but claustrophobic. I felt significantly more relaxed when we were on our way out than I did staring off into the distance of the serene landscape.
We’d later have dinner at the Batbold household, where we’d be served homemade buuz (Mongolian-style dumplings) and a generous amount of alcohol.
On our final day in Mongolia, I had asked Otgoo and Boldoo if they would take me to the monastery to interview a lama for a story I’m working on. The experience ended up being life changing.
Over a dozen brightly colored buildings sit within the walls of the monastery. As we walked down the road, we passed monks as young as 8 or 9 years old, and of course, some much older. We wove in and out of buildings decorated with colorful ribbons and golden statues of goddesses.
I’ve never felt so calm in my life.
After Otgoo translated my questions to the monk, he invited us to the second floor of one of the temples—a place only lamas are allowed. There, we could get better view of a golden goddess’ face.
The three of us left the monastery and headed for a late lunch at Luna Blanca (oddly, “white moon” in Spanish), a vegan restaurant I’d come across online.We ate soup, mashed potatoes, mock meat and milkshakes. After being deprived of soymilk (a staple of my diet) for nearly five weeks, discovering the restaurant had vegan hot chocolate was a wonderful surprise.
From there, I joined the two as the furniture shopped and browsed potential used cars to purchase before heading to Hazara for dinner. That’s where we met up with almost all of our guides as well as another group of Western student scientists who had been traveling with Aaron’s father for the past 5 weeks. We discussed the similarities and differences between our experiences in Mongolia as we piled our plates high with naan, dal and butter chicken.
Boldoo and Otgoo drove us to the hotel, informing us we’d be taken to the airport the next morning by Bagi. My eyes stung as we said our goodbyes, and I noticed Otgoo wipe tears from her eyes as we pulled out of a hug. At the monastery that day, she’d told the lama I was her daughter. She will always be my Mongolian mother.
I miss everyone more than I could have ever imagined.
Photo at top: Stephanie Fox, ready to report, dressed for the field while still in the city of Ulgii. She stands in front of an “I love Ulgii” sign. (Jess Stevens, environmental science teacher at the Gary Comer College Prep High School in Chicago.)
What do Antarctic climate scientists and Nordic Vikings have in common?
More than you’d think.
After being cast out of Iceland for murdering his neighbor, Erik the Red, the notorious Viking who walked the Earth around 985 A.D., braved the unforgiving seas in search of a new home. That’s according to Christopher Klein’s History article “The Viking Explorer Who Beat Columbus to America.” Wrapped in layers of pelts, tools in hand, the Viking dropped anchor on new land. Gradually, he took control, founding the first European settlement in what is today Greenland.
Climate change is rapidly taking the world as we know it into uncharted territory. What we do next and how quickly we do it can shape the degree to which changes are catastrophic – with an escalation in wildfires, drought, flooding, food shortages, and severe storms – or advantageous – with investments in renewable energy and innovation. We are seeing some of both already.
The latest report of the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, released in October, gives us a time-frame of 12 years to cut global emissions by 45 percent below 2010 levels and stay below the tipping point of 1.5 degrees C (2.7 degrees F) global temperature rise. The report was based on the work of 133 scientists and other authors and more than 6,000 peer-reviewed research articles. The Paris Agreement, from which the Trump administration has withdrawn the U.S., set the 1.5-degree limit as an urgent limit in 2015 with the support of 194 countries.
“Everybody talks about the Paris Convention – we can’t heat the Earth more than 1.5 degrees. So what are you gonna do?” asked Columbia University geochemist Wallace Broecker in an interview during October’s annual Comer Abrupt Climate Change Conference in Wisconsin, “Is there a magic switch you pull? Boom! We stop raising CO2 and the Earth cools and it doesn’t warm anymore? Forget it!” Broecker said.
An alpine forest turns into a desert within a mere 16,000 years – the geologic equivalent of a blink of an eye. The transformation is just one climate mystery waiting to be solved.
Wondering what drives local rainfall? Curious about tipping points for the entire global weather system? To find answers, you’ll have to go through the “lake mafia,” a disparate collection of scientists who study closed lake basins.
They admit they don’t have definitive explanations. But with the clues they collectively gather and assess, they’re are coming ever closer.
That’s why such a “mafia” even exists, or was jocularly referenced by Douglas Boyle, a climatologist at the University of Nevada, Reno, who identified his colleagues with that specific moniker during a presentation at the 2018 Comer Climate Conference this fall on climate in the Mono Lake basin.
The mafia members gathered at the annual conference to present their latest research findings. Yonaton Goldsmith, a geochemistry postdoc at the California Institute of Technology, studies lakes in China. Geochemist Sidney Hemming and her sixth-year Ph.D. student Guleed Ali with Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, pursue fieldwork at Mono Lake in California. Adam Hudson, a geologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, studies the now nearly empty basin of ancient Lake Chewaucan in Oregon.
Lakes that don’t have an outlet are called closed basin lakes. These provide vital clues to understanding and developing theories of climate, Goldsmith said. “There are abrupt events where lakes rose rapidly and we would like to know the relationship of these events to climate changes,” Goldsmith says. “Why does this happen? How does it happen? This is still an enigma but we do really see these rapid changes in lake size and ultimately rainfall.” The big picture goal, Goldsmith says, is understanding the mechanisms of climate and how rainfall water availability respond to climate changes.
In the United States, the Great Basin watershed, an arid area that extends from California to Utah, is a hotbed of study for paleoclimatology – the study of climate past stretching back hundreds of thousands and even millions of years. These scientists are telling the story of how lake changes that occurred naturally inform our most pressing concerns about the pace and magnitude of climate change as human use of fossil fuels are pushing it now. But the history of these lake scientists, their relationships to each other, and their work tells a story as well about how science is conducted and how powerful hypotheses are developed over time.
“The lake scientists at this conference come from different institutions and we work in different places around the globe,” Goldsmith says. “Before this conference we weren’t really connected, it wasn’t an organic connection … and I think that for us this whole becoming a gang has happened here [at the Comer Conference]. Oh, we’re all doing the same thing! We’re all working on really similar questions! We should be talking to each other.”
Columbia University geochemist Wallace Broecker is the common thread among these lake researchers. They are his former students, students of his former students, or of past and present colleagues. His decades of research span oceanography and climate science. He is credited with discovering the global circulatory system of the Earth’s ocean and was a pioneer in radiocarbon dating. Broecker began investigating the geology of Pyramid Lake in Nevada over 60 years ago, when he was pulled aside by Phil Orr, a pipe-smoking scientist in cowboy boots who told him, “Look kid, I can tell you know a lot about math and science. But you don’t know a goldarn thing about the Earth. You come with me for three weeks and I’ll change your life.”
Pyramid Lake is where Broecker collected his first sample of lake limestone, towers of rock called tufas that jut out from the shoreline. “It was a tufa from the highest shore line of [ancient] Lake Lahontan,” Broecker explains. “So I got interested in those lakes. And dated quite a few samples and then had students that worked on it, and then more recently these other people appeared who, you know, are eager to work on it, so they created the ‘mafia’ … they were following in my footsteps in a way.”
Broecker’s work analyzing tufas and recording the history of Pyramid Lake and others as they expanded or receded helped develop current theories of how temperature, rainfall and evaporation are connected, and how quickly they respond to changes. If lakes can dry up in a matter of centuries, than our current pace of global warming can have a profound impact on local climates, threatening future water availability.
“Most precipitation that comes to the Great Basin falls as snow in the winter,” Hudson explains. “And it comes from the Pacific Ocean, and where it comes into the coast and how often it gets there is controlled by a variety of things.”
At the Comer Conference, the mafia presented new research on lake regions. Ali demonstrated Mono Lake’s historic fluctuations with new research. Hudson used ancient fossilized fish remains to map a more precise history of Lake Chewaucan’s past volume. And Goldsmith linked lakes in East Asia to water availability. “With geology, what’s going on today informs how we think about what see from the past record,” Hemming says. “I feel like I’ve done a second Ph.D. working on Mono Basin.”
Another equally important reason that scientists are drawn to these lakes and to the flowing ice of glaciers is because of their intrinsic and captivating beauty. Hudson Tufas in Mono Lakedescribes a section of mountain, a fault between two lava flows in Southeast Oregon, as “the walls of Mordor”; Hemming has been coming to Lake Mono for years.
“It’s really the only lake I ever studied,” Hemming says. “Every day is a discovery it is so beautiful and enigmatic and I’ve never not spent a single day that I went out in the field that I didn’t come back thinking: I really learned or discovered something that I hadn’t known before. It’s just that … field work in general just brings that level of discovery to your life. It’s way better than the lab.”
Photo at top: Geo-chemist Yonaton Goldsmith digs through lake sediments in Mongolia. (Courtesy of Yonaton Goldsmith/Caltech)