Climate Change, Plastics Threaten World’s Tallest Peak

Aerial view of the Mount Everest landscape with the village of Phortse in the background. The National Geographic and Rolex Perpetual Planet Everest Expedition was the most comprehensive single scientific expedition to the mountain in history. (Image credit: Mark Fisher/National Geographic.)

(CN) — Thirty-four scientists’ two-month expedition to Mount Everest last year produced four new research papers and several works of art, commentary and interdisciplinary reflection, all examining how climate change and pollution have impacted the tallest place on Earth.

The National Geographic Society and Rolex partnered with Nepal’s Tribhuvan University to organize the journey, the first of several “perpetual planet expeditions.” The trip to Everest took place between April and June 2019, the pre-monsoon season

The researchers split into 10 teams, each headed to different sites on the mountain: icy glaciers, iceless lakes, the summit standing 29,029 feet above sea level.

The long journey from the airport in Lukla, Nepal, to Everest Base Camp — an ascent of more than 7,900 feet on its own — was slow-going, as the scientists climbed only about 980 feet daily to avoid hypoxia and other complications of poor acclimatization.

The scientists availed themselves of myriad means of portage: donkeys carried propane; dzo, a cow-yak hybrid, hauled food supplies; yak brought the kerosene; humans carried climbing and hiking gear on their backs.

The numerous resulting papers, published Friday in the monthly scientific journal One Earth, represent work by glaciologists, geologists, meteorologists, biologists and cartographers from research institutions across the globe. Their work reflects the diversity of the scientists’ backgrounds.

Expedition lead Paul Mayewski, a climate scientist at the University of Maine, headed a comprehensive assessment of oxygen availability at the mountain’s summit, finding that the warming climate will raise air pressure at Everest’s peak, allowing the mountain’s climbers to breathe more easily — resulting in a trek that “feels” like 2,000 feet less an ascent than it is.

Another paper analyzes the microplastics in snow samples obtained just below the mountain’s summit.

The high-altitude expedition team drills the world’s highest ice core sample at 8,020 meters above sea level during the National Geographic and Rolex Perpetual Planet Everest Expedition in spring 2019. (Image credit: Dirk Collins/National Geographic.)

“I didn’t know what to expect in terms of results, but it really surprised me to find microplastics in every single snow sample I analyzed,” said lead author Imogen Napper, a University of Plymouth marine scientist who did not attend the expedition, in a statement. “Mount Everest is somewhere I have always considered remote and pristine. To know we are polluting near the top of the tallest mountain is a real eye-opener.”

Napper concludes that the found fibers — polyester, acrylic, nylon and polypropylene — likely came from climbing and camping equipment used by climbers journeying to Everest’s peak.

A third new study measures the effects of global warming — for instance, changes in precipitation and glacial reservoirs’ capacity to store water — on hazard events such as avalanches, outburst floods and slope failure, which pose a risk not only to visiting trekkers but also the roughly 10,000 Nepalese living in the nearby Khumbu region.

The research confirmed that the Hindu Kush-Himalaya-Karakoram region’s specific humidity and freezing level height have both risen since 1981. The scientists identify the northern Bay of Bengal as a key source of moisture during monsoon season, when a plurality of the region’s moisture falls.

These observations would not be possible if the high-altitude expedition team hadn’t installed five automated weather stations, including the world’s highest at more than 27,657 feet above sea level, to monitor snowstorms and trace the moisture sources of precipitation.

The scientists write that the stations will help predict the future availability of water in the area and monitor temperature, moisture and wind speed, data that will advise visitors and local mountaineering guides as well as contribute to future climatological research.

Finally, researchers used historic and contemporary satellite images of Everest and its glacial surroundings to determine that the glaciers have thinned more than 328 feet since the 1960s, even at heights as extreme as 19,685 feet above sea level — and that the rate of ice mass loss is quickening.

Additionally, geologists on the trip took photographs with drones, dated accumulated sediments and deposits near glacial lakes, and obtained ice cores from high-elevation lakes — including the first-ever taken from the Gokyo Valley in western Khumbu — to analyze climate warming’s effects as seen through water isotopes, trace elements, biological material and plastics.

The geologists’ records also assisted the expedition’s cartographers, who worked to improve the resolution of maps and prediction models, accounting for the region’s changing glacial coverage and topography.

View of Everest Base Camp. The National Geographic and Rolex Perpetual Planet Everest Expedition was the most comprehensive single scientific expedition to the mountain in history. (Image Credit: Martin Edstrom/National Geographic)

The One Earth issue features two “Visual Earth” artworks: an unattributed triptych depicting a mythic Nepalese origin story for the mountain, and an early-morning photograph by glaciologist Mariusz Potocki depicting a starry night sky high above the Khumbu Icefall.

Commentary pieces accompany the new findings. Hemant Ojha, a professor at Australia’s University of Canberra, authored an editorial asking for “a new engaged Himalayan sustainability science” that includes local voices in researchers and policymakers’ discussions of economic and environmental conditions in and around Everest, and endeavors to share the dividends of scientific research with Himalayan communities.

Researchers also acknowledged several expedition planners in their behind-the-scenes writeup about the trip’s logistic challenges.

“High-altitude climbing Sherpas are a phenomenal group of people, and nothing on Mt. Everest could be accomplished without their leadership, guidance, and support,” they wrote.

Called Chomolungma (“Mother Goddess of the Universe”) by the Tibetans and Sagarmatha (“Head of the Earth in the Sky”) by the Nepalese, Everest was given its popular name by the British Royal Geographic Society in honor of geographer George Everest (pronounced “eve-rest”), a colonial administrator in India who reportedly objected to the decision because he did not discover the mountain and his name could not be written or easily pronounced in Hindi.

Thousands of mountaineers have been inspired to attempt to reach the summit of the world’s tallest mountain since Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary performed the first confirmed successful ascent in 1953. The mountain has since claimed more than 300 lives: altitude sickness, avalanches, exposure and falls are common killers.

Everest sits in the Mahālangūr Himāl zone of the Himalayas, where three more of the Earth’s tallest six peaks join it in dividing the sovereign Nepal from Tibet, a Chinese autonomous region. The nations’ border runs across Everest’s summit point.

Across the globe, glacierized mountain ranges such as the Hindu Kush Himalayas, where Mount Everest stands tall, store and transport water for more than a fifth of the world’s human population and about half the planet’s total inhabitants.

“Mountains will outlast us,” the journal’s editorial team wrote. “But without immediate action and integrated approaches to adaptation and sustainable development, they will lose their majesty. They will become diminished. With consequences for us all.”

%d bloggers like this: