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Scientists on hunt for climate-change clues explore rare tropical glacier

A team of scientists is climbing Indonesia's tropical glacier, Puncak Jaya, to dig out ice cores and study them for past patterns of climate change. They will also study samples from China, Peru, and Kenya.

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Indonesia’s towering Puncak Jaya mountain straddles one of the world’s richest and most inaccessible gold and copper mines. But the scientists currently prospecting on the 16,000-ft peak are digging for a different kind of treasure: fragile ice cores that can yield clues to the climatic past and give pointers on the future.

Jutting up from the island of New Guinea, which is split between the Indonesian province of Papua and the independent nation of Papua New Guinea, the mountain’s slopes hold some of the only tropical glaciers in the world. Scientists study ice cores as a proxy for climatic data stretching back thousands of years. The data can be used for climate modeling to understand how natural cycles work and to predict the impact on manmade warming on temperature and precipitation.

In pictures: Disappearing glaciers

For Lonnie Thompson, an alpine glaciologist at Ohio State University and a leading authority in the field, climbing Puncak Jaya completes a longtime ambition. Speaking Friday by phone from the expedition’s campsite 120 meters below the peak, he said it was a race against time as a warming planet was already taking its toll on the ice.

“It’s melting and retreating very quickly. We want to capture its history while it’s still possible,” he says.

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