“No scientist has taken bigger risks” – Vice President Al Gore on Dr. Lonnie Thompson
“The tenacity of a lone scientist can alter the course of thinking.” – Nature Magazine
Dubbed as "the closest living thing to Indiana Jones" by Harvard geochemist Daniel Schrag, Dr. Lonnie Thompson captivated the world with his daring and death-defying expeditions to Earth's highest peaks. Over nearly 70 ventures into the planet's most remote and towering terrains, Lonnie spent an unprecedented four-plus years above 18,000 feet, a feat unrivaled by anyone else.
His extraordinary quests involved transporting six tons of equipment to the world's loftiest glaciers, where he drilled into ancient ice to extract invaluable historical records. From these ice cores, Lonnie unearthed climate histories spanning hundreds of thousands of years, details of ancient volcanic activity, and, most significantly, undeniable proof of human-induced climate change – the gravest peril confronting our civilization.
Lonnie's humble beginnings in a poverty-stricken West Virginia coal mining town set the stage for his remarkable journey. Intrigued by science and equipped with a weather station he built in his family's barn, he harbored dreams of becoming a scientist despite the coal mining fate expected of him. A pivotal moment came when his father's passing propelled him to pursue a higher calling, motivating him to work multiple jobs to fund his college education.
At Ohio State University, Lonnie's focus on coal geology shifted after a life-changing opportunity to study ice cores in Antarctica. In a field dominated by research on polar glaciers, Lonnie questioned why no one was investigating glaciers on the world's tallest mountains, situated away from the poles. Though experts dismissed the notion as impossible due to the extreme altitude, Lonnie persevered. After a decade of setbacks, he triumphantly returned from Peru's Quelccaya glacier with a historical record, shattering boundaries and revolutionizing climate understanding.
Among the pioneering few to study these remote glaciers, Lonnie witnessed firsthand the rapid effects of climate change as he stumbled upon a newly formed lake. Confronted by the alarming melting, he addressed Congress to raise the alarm about climate change. Disheartened by the lack of response, Lonnie sought more evidence, leading him to higher and more treacherous terrain.
Despite scaling greater heights, Lonnie's frustration grew. Amassing mountains of evidence of global warming yielded little behavioral change. A health scare jolted him into a realization – his heart was failing, necessitating a transplant. Ironically, the advocate for climate facts ignored his own health reality. Only after a near-death experience and a subsequent machine-assisted recovery did Lonnie acknowledge the power of denial in the face of challenging truths. He recognized that facts alone weren't enough; addressing climate denial required emotional as well as factual engagement.
While Lonnie still explores the mountains, his perspective has shifted. He now dedicates his time to addressing audiences worldwide, sharing his transformative journey from a coal mining destiny to becoming a preeminent climate scientist. His personal story serves as a reminder of the universal susceptibility to denial in the face of climate change. Lonnie's tale underscores the importance of confronting seemingly insurmountable challenges head-on and persisting until victory is achieved – a lesson paramount in our collective struggle against climate change.