Lonnie Thompson has perhaps spent more time at the top of the world than anyone else on the planet.
Thompson, a distinguished university professor of earth sciences at The Ohio State University and senior research scientist at the Byrd Polar and Climate Research Center, has spent his five-decade career on expeditions to some of the highest and most remote places imaginable, drilling ice cores to illuminate ancient histories that only glaciers hold.
It’s for this reason that “Canary,” a new documentary opening in limited release tomorrow (Sept. 15, 2023), calls Thompson “the closest living thing to Indiana Jones.” Set against the backdrop of the Peruvian Andes’ now-melting Quelccaya Ice Cap, the film follows the highs and lows of Thompson’s race to save these vital ice masses around the world from global warming.
“I’ve been working in Quelccaya for 50 years and I have never seen it in such bad shape,” he said. “It’s heartbreaking to see such a magnificent ice cap fall apart, but this is true throughout the Himalayas, on Kilimanjaro in Africa, and Greenland – if there’s ice in today’s world, it’s melting.”
The nearly two-hour film holds a second layer of personal significance to Thompson, who grew up believing he’d be destined to spend his life toiling in West Virginia’s coal mines. It was named “Canary” from the way miners used to carry canaries down into the mining tunnels because they were sensitive enough to detect carbon monoxide or other toxic gas changes in the air. If the canary fell unconscious or died, the miners would be cautioned enough to retreat before tragedy could strike.
Now, just as songbirds once sounded the alarm to impending disaster in mines, so too can the well-being of glaciers warn us of a future climate catastrophe, said Thompson.
“Glaciers are our canary in the coal mine,” he said. “They are an early warning system for the Earth and they’re all retreating at an accelerating rate.”
Opening up in New Guinea, the film crew follows Thompson’s team on a number of perilous research missions throughout the years as researchers drill ice cores from mountains once thought to be too high for humans to ever conquer. “Everybody has mountains, and those mountains are different. But overcoming those mountains takes the same type of persistence and dedication and hard work,” said Thompson.
Once ice cores are collected, these specimens are whisked away to the Byrd Center’s freezers for cold storage, where thousands of meters of ice samples are stored and preserved so scientists can study what the chemistry, gases, dust, viruses and bacteria that lie within them can reveal about Earth’s complex environmental past. Though the documentary emphasizes that the rapid disappearance of glaciers is inevitable – likely within the 21st century – having The Byrd Center’s vast collection can go a long way to informing climate research for years after humanity loses the glaciers, said Thompson.
“Preserving that archive is one of our chief missions for the next generation because those will be the only samples that we have,” he said. “We’re measuring things that we couldn’t do a decade ago, and I can only think about what we might be able to measure in 20 years that we wouldn’t be able to without these records.”
Intertwined with describing the challenges of standing on the frontlines of climate change is the film’s account of how Thompson’s relationship with his work changed after he was diagnosed with congestive heart failure.
“I was, at one stage, given less a than 10% chance of survival, but I did survive,” he said. “It gave me a new perspective on how fleeting life can be and a better feel for how difficult the climate issue is when you’re dealing with people’s lives.”
As for the legacy he’ll one day leave behind, Thompson said getting the story right on the silver screen will touch far more hearts than would have been possible before, because he believes that climate change won’t be solved just by writing scientific papers or from inside a lab, but by remarkable people who will use the research to change our trajectory.
“Humans didn’t leave the Stone Age because we ran out of stones. We found a better way,” said Thompson. “And we will not leave the fossil fuel age when we use all the fossil fuels, but because we’re going to find better ways to utilize the other technologies we have.”
The Gateway Film Center will host premieres of Canary at 1:30 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 15, and 7 p.m. on Sunday, Sept. 17. These showings will include an introduction and post-screening Q&A with Thompson and Ellen Mosely-Thompson, a distinguished university professor in geography at Ohio State. Additional screenings will be held throughout the week. The film will then have a one-night-only special nationwide screening on Sept. 20.