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A new landmark greeted climbers approaching the summit of Mount Everest this spring: a seven-foot-tall scientific instrument mast bolted into the coarse shale of an outcrop known as Bishop Rock. It is only about 130 vertical feet from the 29,032 foot summit, where one can look to the opposite side of the mountain, China, and see another weather station about an equal distance from the summit.

These facilities are the highest outposts of two networks of automatic weather stations that span the two popular Everest routes. This being Everest, where controversy is no stranger, it wasn’t long before a dispute arose over bragging rights. Which station is higher: the one in China or the one in Nepal? The two countries share a border that divides the mountain, and officials from both have claimed their nation’s honor. Maybe Guinness World Records should investigate.

There are, of course, bigger issues. With the arrival of this human infrastructure near the top of the world, our understanding of climate change on Mount Everest has reached an inflection point. The so-called Third Pole is home to the tallest mountains on Earth and contains one of the largest ice covers outside of the North and South Polar Regions. Its glaciers feed more than 10 river systems and supply water to some two billion people, about a quarter of the world’s population.

As these glaciers disappear, cooperation between Nepal and China will be important in understanding the rate, extent and impact of warming in this remote and inhospitable region. China has not always invited foreigners to its side of Everest, which has remained closed to foreign climbers since the start of the Covid pandemic in 2020. But researchers hope the two countries will collaborate.

Warming in this third pole is occurring at roughly double the global rate and has been particularly pronounced over the past 60 years. This century is shaping up to be the hottest time in these high mountains for 2,000 years, making the area important ground for research in an effort to avert climate catastrophe.

This year, a comprehensive climate assessment for the third pole warned that two-thirds of the current glacier mass in the region around Everest could disappear by the year 2100. Yet, as the assessment has noted, there are significant “knowledge gaps” on climate. data from the region. This is especially true in high altitude environments where annual snowfalls accumulate on top of the region’s myriad glaciers.

The difficulties in collecting reliable geophysical data in this daunting location are obvious and manifold. But in recent decades, a growing number of scientists have taken up the challenge. In the spring of 2019, the National Geographic Society, in collaboration with the government of Nepal and the watchmaker Rolex, helped organize a multidisciplinary expedition of more than 30 scientists from universities and organizations around the world. I was a member of that expedition, helping to document his work. New discoveries from our company and others paint a stunning picture of a landscape in motion.

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For example: an ice core taken at an altitude above 26,000 feet from the South Col, the highest glacier on Everest, showed that the ice on the surface was about 2,000 years old, which means that the ice that had accumulated thereafter, which could have reached a height of 180 feet, had disappeared. Everest climbers also seem to have taken a heavy toll. Snow samples revealed the presence of microplastics almost all the way up the mountain, and snow and water samples from Everest were laden with PFAS, long-lasting chemicals widely used by various industries and in health products. consumption.

The achievements of high-altitude Chinese scientists on the north side of Everest have also been impressive. Over the years they have put together a comprehensive climate history of the area. Indeed, the most experienced of the Everest climatologists is probably Shichang Kang of China’s State Key Laboratory of Cryospheric Sciences. Dr. Kang began working in the Everest region in 1997 and has completed 11 scientific expeditions above 21,300 feet. The Chinese are “much tougher” than their Western counterparts, Paul Mayewski, a University of Maine glaciologist who helped lead the National Geographic effort, told me. Dr. Kang was one of his former students.

China’s weather stations are just part of a major research effort by the country that reportedly involved more than 270 researchers who conducted field studies in the region last spring.

Underlining the pace of change on the mountain, Nepal announced last week that it would move the location of its Everest base camp at 17,600 feet on the Khumbu Glacier to a new site at around 650 to 1 300 feet down the mountain. Hundreds of climbers use base camp to rest, adjust to the altitude, and prepare for their climbs. But researchers say the glacier is destabilizing so quickly that camping on its surface is no longer a good idea.

The Nepal Project is committed to sharing much of its data in real time. We don’t know if the Chinese will do it. Dr Mayewski said he was optimistic that China would share its research on climate change at the highest altitudes in the world. An example from Claude Lorius, the patron saint of ice coring, shows how essential cooperation is to scientific discovery.

In ‘Ice and Sky’, his outstanding 2015 documentary on global warming, Dr Lorius talked about an expedition he made to Vostok, the isolated Soviet base near the geomagnetic south pole, in the 1980s. .

Referring to the international cast involved, he recalled “American logistics for French researchers on a Soviet base in the midst of the Cold War, in the most remote region of the world”. For him, it was “living proof that science is above political divisions”.

Let’s hope the spirit of Claude Lorius prevails.

Freddie Wilkinson is the writer and co-director of the documentary “The Sanctity of Space”.


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