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SINGAPORE (Reuters) - Scientists have begun drilling ice cores at a shrinking tropical glacier in Indonesia to collect data on climate change, and hope their findings could lead to better predictions about crucial monsoon rains.
The team led by alpine glaciologist Lonnie Thompson of Ohio State University is drilling near the summit of 4,884-metre (16,000-foot) Puncak Jaya on Indonesia's part of New Guinea island.
The mountain is the highest in Oceania and the only place in the tropical Pacific with glacial ice that scientists can study to see how the climate has changed over centuries.
Thompson said this was probably the last chance to take the ice cores because the tiny glaciers on Puncak Jaya, which have lost 80 percent of their ice since 1936, are melting rapidly.
"Our effort is as much a salvage mission to get these records, get whatever they offer and to store some of the ice for the future," he told Reuters from the town of Tembagapura near the mountain during a short break from drilling.
"The glaciers have very little time left, much shorter than I thought," he said, adding temperatures at the summit were above freezing and with rain every day that was melting the ice fields.
Glaciers can store long-term records of the climate. Those on Puncak Jaya have layers like tree rings that are the difference between the wet and dry seasons in the tropics, Thompson said.
"You can count these layers back through time and you can get a very precise history," he said.
El Nino is a periodic warming of the eastern and central Pacific that can lead to drought in Southeast Asia and Australia and can also affect the monsoon in India while causing floods in parts of South America.
Scientists are trying to pin down if global warming will lead to more and stronger El Ninos that could cause more droughts, fires and crop failures in parts of Asia, affecting millions of people and forcing some nations to import more food.
Indonesia is particularly susceptible to drought because of its large population and dependence on income from rice, cocoa, palm oil, coffee and other crops.
Thompson and his team have so far drilled two cores about 30 metres in length but can't yet say how far back the record goes.
He said a 50-metre ice core his team drilled on Kenya's 5,895-metre Mount Kilimanjaro dated back 11,700 years.
Thompson has also taken ice cores of Peru's 6,100-metre Nevado Hualcan, on the opposite side of the Pacific. Peru often gets droughts when Indonesia gets wet weather and the idea is to build up a broader set of data covering ice cores, tree rings, corals and other proxies of past climate.
Getting the Indonesian ice cores has proved a vast logical challenge, involve shipping in about four tonnes of equipment, including drills and large ice boxes to store the ice cores to make sure they don't melt on the way to Ohio.
Editing by Jeremy Laurence