By Tim Johnson
19 June 2015
(McClatchy) – As a result of warming temperatures, Mexico’s tallest volcano, Pico de Orizaba, is performing an all-natural striptease, the ice patches near its summit melting away to bare rock.
The same process is taking place in the permafrost of Russia, the ice fields of the Yukon and the glaciers of New Zealand. And as the once-frozen world emerges from slumber, it’s yielding relics, debris – and corpses – that have laid hidden for decades, even millennia.
The thaw has unnerved archaeologists, given hope to relatives of lost mountain climbers and solved the mysteries of old plane crashes.
What emerges is not always apparent – or even pleasant. That pungent smell? It’s a massive deposit of caribou dung in the Yukon that had been frozen for thousands of years, and now is decomposing in the air, its sharp odor unlocked.
Pico de Orizaba towers above all other mountains in Mexico at 18,491 feet. It is the highest peak in North America after Mount McKinley in Alaska and Mount Logan in Canada’s Yukon Territory. A challenging dormant volcano, Orizaba is a training ground for those interested in high-altitude climbing.
For a handful of climbers, it has been their last peak. They’ve been buried by avalanches or swallowed by crevasses. Now, the mountain is spitting back their bodies.
Late in February, a climbing party circled the jagged crater atop Orizaba.
“One of them slipped, and they later said he skidded down and came to a stop. When he got up, he saw a head poking out of the snow,” said Hilario Aguilar Aguilar, a veteran climber.
It was a mummified climber, a member of a Mexican expedition hit by an avalanche on Nov. 2, 1959. Some climbers fell near the Chimicheco Ridge, their bodies frozen in an icy time machine, only to re-emerge 56 years later. […]
Archaeologists are turning into unlikely beneficiaries of a warmer Earth, and several have started a new publication: the Journal of Glacial Archaeology.
Its editor, E. James Dixon, an anthropologist at the University of New Mexico, frets about the phenomenon of ancient ice melting after thousands of years.
“For every discovery that is made, there are thousands coming out of the ice and are decomposing very rapidly,” Dixon said. “In the ice, some of the most delicate artifacts are preserved. We’ve found baskets, arrow shafts with the feathers intact and arrowheads and lashings perfectly preserved.”
Once the ice melts and the artifacts are exposed, they decay quickly. [more]