“How do we pack for a visit to a tropical glacier?”

Ever practical, Karrie identified the key concern in leaving Australia to accompany our Freeport mining contact from the Indonesian capital Jakarta to the regional centre of Timika (76m asl) in West Papua and then on via the mining town of Tembagapura (2850m asl) to our destination on the Grasberg Plateau.  At 4268m asl, this housed a very unusual mountain, now the largest gold and copper mine in the world, and only 6 km from the snow-clad peak known as Puncak Jaya (or Carstensz Toppen in the Dutch and Ngga Pulu in local dialects).

As part of a conspicuous review of Freeport expansion plans, then envisaging a mere doubling of processing activities, there was a need to investigate local concerns about the black spots appearing sometimes on the nearby Meren glacier – perhaps this was mine dust which, together with the heat emitted by mine operations, were aiding the rapid retreat of the local glaciers observed over the past 25 years.  The Java-based military was very proud of their “jewel of Indonesia” acquired with West Papua only 30 years ago and needed convincing of the likely reasons for the future trajectory of the glacial extent.

View of Carstenz glacier 1995
Regional view in 1995s

Not just us and our clothes but also camera equipment and baggage needed to travel happily from the sea-level swelter of the tropics at the landing point of Timika to our almost polar destination only 70 km to the north.  We laughed, from the tropics to the pole in two days; how could we be so lucky?  This moment crystallized our view of the world and indirectly led to this book.

Over a three-day stay, we inspected industrial facilities in its almost magical setting.  On Grasberg Mountain, with no spare helicopters that day to fly us to 5000 m and view the glaciers from the air, we had to be content with literally breathless images of glaciers to the east. A southwards view then followed the progress of Caterpillar D9 haulage trucks transporting the ore to the conveyor station before its 1000 m plunge to the main processing centre, where work conditions were easier.

A few months of frantic organisation later, on the clear early morning of 27 January 1997, an Australian Lear jet equipped with an advanced thermal scanner was kindly allowed into Indonesian airspace to make a series of six runs over the mine-glacier region.  There was an obvious imprint of mine activities out to around 1 km, with dump trucks and chimney plumes being easily distinguished;  the glaciers were easily mapped, the total area of 3.5 km2 confirming a continual shrinkage over the previous 20 years.

Freeport mine 2007
Satellite image for 2003

Desk-top emission and dispersion modelling suggested that little dust or thermal impacts on the glaciers were likely – the black spots most likely were organic, as suggested by consultant biologist. Our studies also analysed climate records for all locations within 1000 km, reviewed past (mainly Australian) studies on the glaciers and commissioned CSIRO climate modelling of the region for the next 100 year scenarios.   All conclusions supported a long-term downward trend in glacial extent and health.  The lower-elevation Meren glacier was in immediate danger of disappearing, the Northwall Firn glacier might make it to 2020 and the most elevated parts of the Carstensz glacier would be gone between 2040 and 2080.  Thereafter, the only ice from the West Papua ice-field would reside in the Byrd Polar Laboratory in Ohio, USA, as a result of core samples taken in 2011.

Climate risks were the main cause for concern for the Indonesian authorities and the lovers of this unique Lorentz Park.  Otherwise the view to the horizon in the above picture (1995) would become environmental history.

The above satellite image is for 29 May 2003, several years into the expansion.  In 2013, plans are underway for the mining to proceed underground.  In the past 16 years since our visit to the West Papuan glaciers, the importance of climate variability and the influence of climate change on fundamental characteristics of the ocean-atmosphere system have taken centre-stage.  Not that the debate has been unequivocal; multi-year “cycles” and “regime shifts” in key determinants have made managing climate risk and resilience that much harder.

We did not realize it then – but this extreme imagery, the unexpected connections between the weather/climate in different regions of the globe, and the interactions between indigenous and international communities would continue to fascinate and guide our travel plans and philosophy in 2012.  The quip about the “tropic-to-pole” links in the vertical dimension became a fascination as we travelled more widely, searched the scientific and historical literature and appreciated more the turbulence that engulfed most regions and choke-points.

In the following chapters, photographs from the journeys are presented together with some -to-us new knowledge on the climate variability and changes for each region and the consequences for understanding weather-sensitive activities in the physical, biomass and human communities.

Having visited Northern Australia in July 2011, the images of West Papua were still strong during the more extensive travel in the second half of 2012. These journeys encompassed two polar regions (East Greenland north of the Scoresbysund hub and Iceland; the Antarctic Peninsula and the sub-Antarctic islands of South Georgia and the Falklands).

We visited the equatorial hot-spots of Amazonian jungle (the Waorani tribe of the Oriente in Ecuador who live just to the east of the Yasuni National Park). For good measure, we sampled and read extensively on the equatorial Galapagos Islands and visited an erupting peak in the Ecuadorian Avenue of the Volcanos.  We also revisited in a virtual way the West Papuan glaciers north of the Lorentz National Park to see how prescient the diagnosed likely outcomes back in 1997 had been.

As sub-tropical regions form good stopping-off regions for equator-to-pole considerations, we sampled the regions in which we live (Brisbane and Cairns, Australia near the Great Barrier Reef) and which we cherish (Botswana).   We compared our findings to those for the Kimberley and Arnhem Lands regions of Northern Australia that we investigated in 2011.

As we travelled, we began to wonder.

  • Are there key hubs in the world’s climate system where oceanic and atmospheric processes cause the vagaries and long-term drift of weather, and all that depends on it? 
  • Do animals and isolated human communities respond to such changes?  How are they coping with the challenges – both the old and expected, and the brand-new and perilously fast effects due to human wastes and exploits? 
  • Can natural selection processes occur quickly enough to aid the adaptation to rapid changes, or are there other pathways needed? 
  • Will our children be able to see what we have experienced?  
  • If the hubs and choke-points are under pressure, will the whole system, both physical and social networks, morph into an increasingly unfamiliar and unstable regime? 
  • Are there species or individuals who will become less fragile, much more resilient, to rapid changes and can use this ability to rise up in the pecking order?

Since 1997, we have all changed.  “Last-chance” tourism recognises the somewhat desparate state of affairs but perhaps worsens the paradox of local wishes and global needs.  Satellite technology of several hues can now track the many changes in our physical and biological settings for both urban and remote communities.  Volunteer teachers can now and easily partake in assignments anywhere on the globe and perhaps atone for the less sympathetic missionaries of the past.

We can all now look into the virtual tourism on the internet and take some snapshots of the changes around us.  In 2012, we talked to young photographers in the Amazonian rainforest who maintain photo-traps to capture rare animal images as a way of cementing and preserving community knowledge of their relatively-undisturbed region.  Perhaps we should all do this cataloguing of the present for our own and other communities.

And perhaps at the end of such reflections that travel over time invariably involves, we can revisit our younger versions, standing on that elevated mine road, breathing with difficulty and wondering how we got here in the first place?

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