Published: June 2007
Tim Appenzeller
Interview by Cassandra Franklin-Barbajosa

What was your best experience while covering this story?

In La Paz, Bolivia, I met up with a group of scientists who had promised to show me how the glaciers in the Andes are shrinking. The second day of my visit, they took me up to Zongo, one of their study glaciers. It’s a two-mile-long (three kilometers) mantle of ice on one side of a craggy, 20,000-foot (6,000 meters) peak called Huayna Potosí. Seeing it, I realized that these scientists study glaciers not just out of scientific curiosity, but also out of love. They were visibly excited as we drove up into the Andes and then hiked an hour to the edge of the glacier, at about 17,000 feet (5,200 meters). Glittering under the Andean sun, the ice swooped up the mountain to impossible heights. It was an exhilarating sight. When the leader of the group, an ebullient Frenchman named Bernard Francou, gestured grandly and asked, “How do you like my office?” I had to admit it was splendid.

What was your worst experience while covering this story?

Bolivia’s capital of La Paz is in the Andes at 12,000 feet (3,600 meters), and most travelers have no chance to get used to the altitude. They arrive from sea level, as I did. When you step off the plane, you’re somewhat breathless and light-headed. And by the next morning, you’re likely to feel awful—the throbbing, band-around-the-head feeling of a migraine or a hangover.

I had planned to leave myself a day to acclimate before I had to start my interviews, but airline delays had eaten up my cushion. So I was in bad shape my first day there as I tried to grasp entirely new concepts about tropical glaciers and climate, often in my rusty Spanish. My English wasn’t much better than my Spanish that morning. But within a day I felt better, ready to climb higher to see the glaciers close up.

What would you characterize as the quirkiest or strangest experience while covering this story?

Bolivia is a country that has been dismembered through a series of wars with its neighbors, each of which took a sliver of formerly Bolivian territory. One of the most painful losses was to Chile in 1884, when Bolivia lost its only stretch of seacoast. Now its border with Chile lies high in the Andes. I was reminded of that national sore point one night when I was at dinner with two Bolivian scientists. I told them that for my article I was also reporting on the Greenland ice sheet, which could raise sea level 20 feet (six meters) if it melts completely. The Bolivians joked that Greenland can’t melt too soon for Bolivia, and that it would be great if plenty more ice melts, raising seas even higher. “That way we can have our seacoast back!”