A LEADING SCIENTIST’S PERSPECTIVE: The Scientist/Journalist Experience On Remote Mountain Research Expeditions

How does journalism mix with science on an expedition to remote mountain glaciers? In the end the answer really depends on the character and expectations of the individuals involved. So far our experiences with journalists have been very positive and productive, and I believe the same can be said for their experiences with us.

When we first started considering requests from the media to accompany us, we fretted over the possible extra burden imposed on the research expeditions by taking writers, photographers, and radio and TV crews to remote high-elevation sites on some of the world’s highest mountains.

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Thompson with ice cores in freezer storage at Ohio States’ Byrd Polar Research Center. ©Thomas Nash 2007

For many people, making one’s way to sites above 18,000 feet can be a life-changing experience. In the past 30 years I have personally conducted 52 expeditions in 15 countries (an expedition is defined as four or five researchers spending a month or more in the field) and have experienced many of the logistical challenges that can arise by taking even seasoned veterans into the field.

Adding journalists to the teams creates new challenges, especially involving personal interactions. Before an expedition, members of the science team usually know each other well, either from previous expeditions or through interactions in the classroom and/or laboratory. In many cases, journalists don’t know if they will join us until a few months, or even days, before the expedition. It is not unusual that the first time we meet them is in the field.

This situation can raise issues about their physical condition with a bearing on their health at high elevations, and also about their ability to interact with the rest of the team. As for finances, the media people join us on a per person cost basis. Often if we are contracting for the logistics ourselves, as is the case in our Andes expeditions, then including more reporters can actually reduce the per person cost.

In 2006 we were accompanied on two expeditions by a total of six print and radio journalists. In 2007 we had three TV crews with us in Peru, and our work was later profiled on “Frontline” and “Nova Science Now,” on PBS, and on the History Channel. With each year we receive more requests from news organizations and independent journalists to accompany us to the field and to do follow-up visits to our labs at Ohio State in Columbus.

Consider our experiences with two writers who have been with us in the field and with whom we have developed long-term relationships.

In drilling the ice fields of Sajama, the highest mountain in Bolivia, in 1997, a writer for Natural History Magazine was to join us on the summit. However, she had to cancel the morning before she was to leave for La Paz, so the magazine quickly found a replacement. I first met reporter Mark Bowen on the summit when he arrived at the drill camp without any gear, having left his in camp below. We had extra field gear, so he was able to spend a few challenging days with us.

Bowen went on to write a fine story on the expedition, bringing to a fairly large audience the science and the adventure of high-altitude ice core research. He wrote in his book, Thin Ice: Unlocking the Secrets of Climate in the World’s Highest Mountains, that the expedition was a turning point in his life, which led to a very close collaboration between him and our group.

In 2000, Bowen spent the entire field season with us as we drilled the ice fields of Kilimanjaro; resulting in the final chapter in his book. Unlocking the Secrets provided a detailed look into our research program and what it really takes to recover and produce the ice core paleoclimate histories from many of the world’s highest mountains.

Journalists … and Missourians

I first spoke with Madeleine Nash by telephone back in 1997 when she was Senior Science correspondent for Time. Three years later she and her photographer husband Tom Nash accompanied us to the top of the 18,700-foot Quelccaya Ice Cap in the Peruvian Andes.

Nash once told me that journalists are very like Missourians: “Don’t tell me! Show me!” Her experience on Quelccaya led to a real personal understanding of what actually goes into getting an ice core record from the top of a mountain, and her experience helped inspire at least a few chapters in her book El Niño: Unlocking the Secrets of the Master Weather-Maker published in 2002, in which Quelccaya appears in the title of two chapters.

Nash’s Quelccaya experience played a role also in Time‘s August 20, 2001, feature “America’s Best in Science and Medicine – The Iceman.”

Our research team’s interactions with Madeleine and Tom Nash have continued through the years, and in 2006 they joined us in the field again on an expedition to the Naimona’nyi Mountain in the western Himalayas. Their experiences with us led to the article, which she describes elsewhere in The Yale Forum, for the July 2007 issue of Smithsonian magazine titled: “Chronicling the Ice.”

Through first-hand media involvement with science, we can reach so many more people than we possibly can as academics lecturing in classrooms or publishing articles in professional journals.

To affect public opinion, we must be able to reach large audiences with understandable messages expressed in interesting and engaging ways. Our experience with journalists in the field has so far been positive for us as scientists and also, I’m confident, for the journalists, on both a personal and a professional level.

Journalists, like scientists and students, are often inspired by the high-elevation research experience. Field experiences under extreme conditions in remote locations are how one learns the most about themselves and other members of the team. On high mountain peaks, especially above 20,000 feet, there is not much air, and it is often cold and windy; even dealing with simple daily routines like eating, sleeping and attending to one’s hygiene can be an ordeal.

Under these circumstances it becomes quite clear what is important in life, and objectives like staying healthy, climbing the mountain, and doing the job become paramount. Both science and a more informed public are beneficiaries of this experience.

When it comes to journalists, keep in mind the analogy to Missourians: Don’t just tell them, show them.

Also see: Covering Climate At Nearly 20,000 Feet By J. Madeleine Nash

AUTHOR

Lonnie G. Thompson is Distinguished University Professor in the Department of Geological Sciences and a Research Scientist, Byrd Polar Research Center, at The Ohio State University.

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