Extreme Persistence- page 2 | Science | Smithsonian
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Extreme Persistence

Madeleine and Thomas Nash braved high altitudes and frigid temperatures for "Chronicling the Ice"


The sunset picture of Naimonan'yi came as we were a bit lost, searching for the right track into the valley where our truck camp was set up. We were late and it was getting dark because it had been a rather eventful day—one of the four-wheel-drives had rolled over on the bottom of a 17,000-foot pass and that had caused a delay. No one was hurt, but we were quite worried for a while. Even though it was late, the Chinese driver understood my hollering "Stop! Stop!" when I saw this image opening up.

Lonnie in the negative 30 degree Fahrenheit freezer at Ohio State reminded me of photographing at the South Pole at just about the same temperature. We spent quite a bit of time getting pictures amid all that amazing ice, a record of the earth's climate history. I think we would last for about five minutes at a time before we had to go back outside to get my hands warmed up. Each time I went out I had to put the camera into a big baggie to keep moisture from condensing into frost all over it!

Madeleine, you mention that it can be frustrating getting enough yaks, waiting for trucks that never come, etc. As a science writer, do you find that the pursuit of scientific knowledge includes a lot of waiting around and dealing with inconveniences?

Madeleine: Thompson and I have a lot in common, I think. One trait we share is persistence to the extreme. For example, it took three years for the plans for the expedition to gel, and for my husband and me to get the required visas and permits. In 2004, for example, we were hoping to go with Thompson on an exploratory expedition to Naimona'nyi, but our paperwork did not go through, so he and the other members of his team went without us. I don't like giving up, and I almost never do—which is why I had real trouble admitting to myself that I should not try to go up to the drill camp.

What struck you about Tibet while you were working on this story?

Madeleine: I was stunned by the vastness of the Tibetan plateau, by its emptiness, by its harsh beauty.

Thomas: This was a wonderful adventure. I will always remember the shy, yet welcoming faces of the Tibetans and the prayer flags at every pass as we went deeper and deeper into the remote western regions on the five-day drive.

Madeleine, as someone who knows more about weather and climate than most people, do you think you worry about climate change more?

Madeleine: No doubt I do. And what worries me most is how limited our understanding of the climate system still is. But what we do know is highly disturbing: the climate system is non-linear, which is a way of saying that it is subject to sudden reorganizations once critical thresholds are crossed. Just where these critical thresholds lie we don't yet know. All we can hope is that the experiment we've launched, using our planet as the guinea pig, won't turn out too badly.

Are you hopeful that we will be able to slow down climate change, or do you think we've already done too much damage?

About Amy Crawford
Amy Crawford

Amy Crawford is a Boston-based freelance journalist writing about government, education and ideas. Her writing has appeared in Smithsonian, Slate, Boston Magazine and the Boston Globe.

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