Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Thin Ice, by Mark Bowen

Mark Bowen details the high altitude ice core drilling of Lonnie Thompson's team as well as the history of climatology in Thin Ice: Unlocking the Secrets of Climate in the World's Highest Mountains. I was first taken by this book based on its cover and dust jacket teaser, and then after noticing several references to Mount Everest and climbers in the Index, I thought I had a pretty solid Everest book. I was to find, however, that Bowen writes about 150 pages on Thompson's high-altitude excursions, and wraps this around a 250-page history of climatology. The early history of climatology actually takes place on high mountains, with de Saussure and Leslie Stephen, among others, making measurements high on Alpine peaks. However, (perhaps Bowen tries to make a point of this) scientists lose sight of the mountains for a while in an obsession with polar ice, and it takes independent figures such as John Mercer and Lonnie Thompson to bring the focus back to some of the most important (and fastest disappearing) areas of evidence in glacier ice. Bowen's descriptions of the exploits of Lonnie Thompson are both entertaining and insightful, but I got a little lost in the sea of people Bowen introduces in his climatology history. He explains their studies well and ties everything together, but I felt like I had to eat of lot of vegetables to get to my dessert! For those of you who need further convincing on global warming and have a casual interest in mountaineering, this is your book.

Thin Ice had less to say about Mount Everest than I expected, but applies to it none the less. The retreating of glaciers worldwide is a problem even on the world's highest mountain, as evidenced by the Khumbu and Rongbuk glaciers' retreat and the shrinking of the penintentes on the East Rongbuk. Additionally, the snow cover on the mountain has generally shrunk---Bowen claims that the snow on the summit is on average four feet lower than in 1953. (Based on photos of the upper reaches of the mountain from recent books, I'd believe it!) Over the course of several chapters, he traces the effects of El Nino upon the Indian monsoon season, which has a profound effect on the climbing of Everest. Considering his detailed and nuanced description of the history of climatology, I was a little disappointed in his details regarding the history of Himalayan climbing. He seems to believe that Shipton and Tillman invented the light approach to climbing in the Himalaya, and that they headed off to Nanda Devi with little more than they could carry on their backs. He also follows in the spirit of Peter Steele by believing that Shipton also would have led a successful climb of Everest in 1953. He brings up Shipton in connection with John Mercer, who participated in Shipton's first trip to Patagonia in 1958 to study the glaciers.

No comments:

Post a Comment