In the crater of an active volcano, high in the Andes, a group of scientists recently drilled deep into a glacier, opening a window into the planet’s distant past and with the hope of catching a glimpse into the not so distant future.
The team hiked three weeks to get to the site, accompanied by a mule supply train and local guides. Every few days they had to set up camp and acclimatize to the altitude, which reached a dizzying 19,000 ft (5,790 m).
The crater was so remote that the team – comprising of scientists from the University of Maine Climate Change Institute and the Center of Scientific Studies from Valdivia, Chile – took three years to reconnoiter and plan the expedition.
But despite its challenges, the site offered a unique opportunity for the scientists to study the history of global climate change, the effect that humans have had on that process, and the effect that rising temperatures could have on human populations.
The team has been using glacial samples around the world to reveal a picture of how the human activity has affected the globe’s atmosphere over the last few decades.
And although the overall trend has been alarming, the team has uncovered positive news as well.
“Ice cores, if you’re looking back, had a much higher level of lead 20 years ago than today, because people took action,” Andrei Kurbatov of the University of Maine told The Bangor Daily News.
Past trips have sent researchers from the institute around the world, most frequently to Antarctica. But the Chilean expedition offered a unique example of the effect that global warming can have on human populations.
“This area is really important because the glaciers are one of the primary water sources for Santiago, which is the largest city in Chile, and it’s still growing,” Climate Change Institute Director, Paul Mayewski, told Bangor.
Chile’s glaciers – which are important sources for drinking water, agriculture and hydroelectric power – have been the site of many scientific investigations and local researchers have watched the ice recede over the last three decades.