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Climate Change and Human Impacts Are Altering Mt. Everest Faster and More Significantly Than Previously Known

New findings from the most comprehensive scientific expedition to Mt. Everest in history have been released in the interdisciplinary scientific journal One Earth, filling a critical knowledge gap on the health and status of high-mountain environments.

November 20, 2020 Washington, D.C. — Today, new findings from the most comprehensive scientific expedition to Mt. Everest in history have been released in the interdisciplinary scientific journal One Earth. Featuring a collection of research papers and commentaries on Mt. Everest, known locally as Sagarmatha and Chomolangma, the research identifies critical information about the Earth’s highest-mountain glaciers and the impacts they are experiencing due to climate change. As part of the 2019 National Geographic and Rolex Perpetual Planet Everest Expedition, climate scientists studied the environmental changes including Everest’s “death zone” to understand future impacts for life on Earth as global temperatures rise. 

This new research fills a critical knowledge gap on the health and status of high-mountain environments, which are incredibly difficult to study due to the inhospitable environmental conditions. Key findings include:

  • The highest-ever recorded sample of microplastics was found on the “Balcony” of Mt. Everest at 8,440 m, one of the last resting spots before reaching the summit. This microplastic is likely coming from the clothing and equipment worn by climbers, highlighting the impacts of humans on even the highest reaches of our planet.
  • Researchers surveyed nearly 80 glaciers around Mt. Everest and found evidence of consistent glacial mass loss over the last 60 years and that glaciers are thinning, even at extreme altitudes above 6,000 m. Using declassified spy satellites and a new highest-resolution data set, this is the most complete assessment of the status of the world’s highest glacier as a baseline for future research on its changes.
  • Additionally, the research captures the first documented surge of a glacier (when it moves 10 to 100 times faster than it normally does) in the Mt. Everest region, a phenomenon that can put people and communities at risk. 

Glaciers like those on Everest provide ⅕ of the global population with a steady supply of fresh water around the world. But due to the extreme conditions of these high mountains, little information up until now has existed about the impacts of climate change at elevations above 5,000m. 

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. That water supply is increasingly under threat due to rising temperatures, melting glaciers, pollution, and other human-caused and environmental stressors,” said Paul Mayewski, Scientific and Expedition Lead, and Director, Climate Change Institute University of Maine, and lead author of the preview “Pushing Climate Change Science to the Roof of the World” published in One Earth. 

Microplastic pollution at the highest point on Earth is a direct result of increased tourism and waste accumulation. A large proportion of that waste is made out of non-biodegradable plastic. While visible plastic has been reported on Mt. Everest previously, the pristine environment at Earth’s highest peaks is changing. The new data highlights that the collected snow samples had significantly more microplastics compared to the stream samples, with the majority of microplastics being fibrous. 

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

Results from the highest weather stations in the world demonstrate that the majority of precipitation to the Mt. Everest region is sourced in the Bay of Bengal, highlighting the importance of atmospheric circulation to high mountain glaciers. Further, the weather stations enabled a full reconstruction of climber’s oxygen availability during past Everest summit attempts to generate a comparison of climbing difficulty. 

From April to May 2019, an international, multidisciplinary team of scientists conducted the most comprehensive single scientific expedition to Mt. Everest in the Khumbu Region of Nepal as part of the National Geographic and Rolex partnership. Team members from eight countries, including 17 Nepali researchers conducted trailblazing research in five areas of science that are critical to understanding environmental changes and their impacts: biology, glaciology, meteorology, geology and mapping.

Scientists are now utilizing the samples and data they collected during the Expedition to gain unique insights into how climate change and human populations are affecting even the highest reaches of our planet. Even the highest glaciers on Earth are reeling from human activity around the globe.

“Mountains will outlast us,” the One Earth editorial team wrote 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.”

Papers from the National Geographic collaboration include:

  • King et al.: “Six decades of glacier mass changes around Mt. Everest revealed by historical and contemporary images,” an Article publishing in One Earth (ONEEAR266)
  • Napper et al.: “Reaching new heights in plastic pollution – preliminary findings of microplastics on Mount Everest,” an Article publishing in One Earth (ONEEAR267)
  • Perry et al.: “Precipitation Characteristics and Moisture Source Regions on Mt. Everest in the Khumbu, Nepal,” an Article publishing in One Earth (ONEEAR258)
  • Matthews et al.: “Into Thick(er) Air? Oxygen Availability at Humans’ Physiological Frontier on Mount Everest,” an Article publishing in iScience (ISCI101718)
  • Elvin et al.: “Behind the scenes of a comprehensive scientific expedition to Mt. Everest,” a Backstory publishing in One Earth (ONEEAR253)
  • Mayewski et al.: “Climate Change in the Hindu Kush Himalayas: Basis and Gaps,” a Reflection publishing in One Earth (ONEEAR254)
  • Miner et al.: “An overview of physical risks in the Mt. Everest region,” a Primer publishing in One Earth (ONEEAR255)
  • “Voices from the roof of the world,” a collection of 6 Voices publishing in One Earth (ONEEAR252)
  • Mayewski et al.: “Pushing Climate Change Science to the Roof of the World,” a Preview publishing in One Earth (ONEEAR268)
  • Elmore et al.: “Understanding the World’s Water Towers through High-Mountain Expeditions and Scientific Discovery,” a Preview publishing in One Earth (ONEEAR264)
  • “Everest Night Lights,” a Visual Earth publishing in One Earth (ONEEAR265)
  • “Birth of Sagarmatha,” a Visual Earth publishing in One Earth (ONEEAR269)

 

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This work was supported by the National Geographic Society and Rolex. To learn more about the Everest Expedition, please visit: https://www.nationalgeographic.org/projects/perpetual-planet/everest/ and tune into our YouTube page to get a closer look at the 2019 National Geographic and Rolex Perpetual Planet  Everest Expedition 

 

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PDFs of all papers

Selection of images available for media use

 

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