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Climate Change Researchers Find Thinning Glaciers on Mt. Everest

Climate change
Mt. Everest is experiencing negative effects of climate change and plastics pollution, according to recent research. Credit: Papa Lima Whiskey 2 /CC BY-SA 2.0

Climate change and plastics pollution, among other negative factors, are affecting the highest point on Earth, Mt. Everest, in increasingly worrying ways, according to recent research.

New findings from the most recent, comprehensive scientific expedition to the mountain — which is also known to the Nepalese as Sagarmatha and Chomolangma — show that deleterious effects are showing themselves in the glaciers that flow down along its slopes.

The findings, published in the scientific journal One Earth, are from a group of research papers that focus on critical information gleaned regarding the highest glaciers on the Earth and what they are telling us about our climate and humans’ impact on it.

Khumbu glacier
Khumbu glacier on Everest. Credit: / Public Domain

Scientists who devote their study to the climate, including those from the Climate Change Institute at the University of Maine, looked at environmental changes, including in Everest’s “death zone,” in which there is not enough available oxygen for humans to breathe. This is usually above 8,000 metres (26,247 feet).

They undertook their work as part of the National Geographic and Rolex Perpetual Planet Everest Expedition, in order to better understand future impacts for life on Earth as global temperatures rise.

This new research, they say, fills a critical gap in scientific knowledge regarding the health of high-mountain environments, which are of course incredibly difficult to study due to the dangerous conditions in the highest terrain on Earth.

Highest-ever incidence of Microplastics found

Key findings of the scientists include the disturbing sampling of the highest-ever recorded existence of microplastics — which was discovered on the “Balcony” just below the South Summit of Mount Everest, at 8,440 meters (27,690 feet), one of the last resting spots before reaching the actual summit.

These microplastics are most likely coming off the high-tech clothing and equipment worn by climbers — which goes to show how incredibly delicate the microclimate is at the top of the world and how very easily it can be impacted from such seemingly innocuous sources.

Researchers, who sampled almost 80 glaciers around Mount Everest, also found evidence of consistent glacial mass loss over the last 60 years and that glaciers are also thinning out, even at what are considered “extreme altitudes” — those above 6,000 meters (19,685 feet).

The scientists also used as many remote tools as they could in order to capture a picture of the climate reality around the world’s highest mountain, including information from declassified spy satellites and a new highest-resolution data set.

The information they gleaned and collated together comprises the most complete assessment of the status of the world’s highest glacier, which will be used as a baseline for future research on how it may change in the future.

Glacier surge witnessed

Their research also captured the first documented “surge” of a glacier, when it moves ten to 100 times more rapidly than normal, in the Mount Everest region. As seen already during the recent Ice Avalanche on the Khumbu Icefall in 2014, this can be deadly and place entire communities at risk.

In that event, a piece of ice which had appeared as a cliff edge and was known to climbers, dislodged from the side of the mountain, crashing down on top of Sherpas who were climbing on the Khumbu Icefall, a glacier that already moves annually so much that new routes must be picked out each year.

In that event, the ice, which climber and writer Jon Krakauer called “as large as a Beverly Hills mansion,” broke off, killing 16.

The joint National Geographic/ Rolex Perpetual Planet Everest Expedition was the most comprehensive single scientific expedition to Earth’s highest point in history.

A dedicated team of scientists, along with expert climbers and guides, surveyed the mountain’s geography, geology and biodiversity and installed a network of weather stations, including the world’s highest.

They also collected cores bored out of glacial and lake ice in order to better understand the impacts of climate change on the world’s tallest — and most pristine — mountain.

Glaciers, such as those on Everest, provide one-fifth of the peoples of the world with a steady supply of fresh water. However, because of the extreme conditions of these high mountains, until now little information has existed about the impacts of climate change at elevations above 5,000 meters.

“Mountains and their rapidly-disappearing glaciers are the ‘water towers’ of our planet, storing and transporting freshwater to nearly two billion people around the world,” said Paul Mayewski, scientific and expedition lead, and director of the Climate Change Institute. “That water supply is increasingly under threat due to rising temperatures, melting glaciers, pollution, and other human-caused and environmental stressors.”

Mayewski is the lead author of the article “Pushing Climate Change Science to the Roof of the World” published in One Earth. Mayewski also is lead author on the reflection “Climate Change in the Hindu Kush Himalayas: Basis and Gaps.”

Aaron Putnam, who is a climate sciences assistant professor and the 2019 Expedition’s geology team co-leader, is one of 17 co-authors of the piece.

The authors found that microplastics pollution near the highest point on Earth is a direct result of the pressures from increased tourism and waste accumulation of climbers who are attempting to summit it.

Once-pristine environment polluted

A large proportion of that waste is unfortunately made out of non-biodegradable plastics. While a great deal of visible plastic and other debris – including tents and empty oxygen tanks — had been reported on Mount Everest, the news that came out of this most recent survey is particularly discouraging.

There is no doubt that the once-pristine environment near Earth’s highest peaks in the Himalayas is becoming polluted. The new data collected by Majewski and his colleagues highlight that the collected snow samples and ice cores had significantly more microplastics compared to the stream samples, with the majority of microplastics coming from fibers.

Imogen Napper, a National Geographic Explorer and the first author of “Reaching New Heights in Plastic Pollution — Preliminary Findings of Microplastics on Mount Everest” says “With increased tourism, microplastics throughout Mount Everest are expected to rise, creating issues for the environment and people of the Khumbu region.”

The waterproof acrylic fibers of the so-called “Himalayan suits” worn by expedition climbers and Sherpas are partially responsible for the pollution. In addition, discarded metal oxygen canisters and other waste is a regular sight at common resting points along the way up Mt. Everest.

The National Geographic and Rolex Perpetual Planet Everest Expedition was the most comprehensive single scientific expedition to the mountain in history, according to the authors.

The highest ice core on Earth — at 8,020 meters (26,312 feet) on the South Col was collected during the 2019 Expedition.

Even the highest glaciers on Earth are now feeling the impact from human activity all around the globe.

“Mountains will outlast us,” the One Earth editorial team stated in its “The Changing Face of Mountains” editorial.

“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.”

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