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Mt. Everest’s Highest Glacier Feels the Impacts of Human-Induced Climate Change

New data analyzed from the world’s highest ice core confirms glaciers are disappearing at a faster rate than realized

New data analyzed from the world’s highest ice core confirms glaciers are disappearing at a faster rate than realized

Washington, D.C. (February 3, 2022) —  Data from a new paper published today in the Nature Portfolio Journal Climate and Atmospheric Science, has identified Mount Everest’s highest glacier is now losing several decades of ice accumulation annually. The earth’s warmer climate is causing melting and sublimation (where the snow top gets removed) where the exposed ice, which is darker, absorbs more sunshine which in turn accelerates the melt rate.   

Key concerns:

  • The faster the ice accumulation disappears, it will decrease the capacity of the glacier to be able to provide water for the more than 1 billion people who depend on it for drinking and irrigation. 
  • New impacts can also increase the risk of avalanches in the region.
  • Future expeditions to Mt. Everest could encounter more exposed bedrock as snow and ice cover continues to thin in the coming decades potentially making it more challenging to climb. 

Researchers investigated the timing and cause of the significant ice mass loss on the South Col Glacier (one of the sunniest spots on earth). They analyzed data from a 10-meter-long ice core and weather stations, as well as photogrammetric and satellite imagery, and other records. The researchers estimated contemporary thinning rates are approaching approximately 2 meters of water per year now that the glacier has turned from snowpack to ice, losing its ability to reflect solar radiation, resulting in rapid melting and increased sublimation.

“The sublimation is like the drip from a leaking dam and the rapid ice loss is what happens when the dam breaks,” said Mariusz Potocki, a glaciochemist and doctoral candidate in the Climate Change Institute, University of Maine who collected the highest ice core on the planet. “Once South Col Glacier ice was regularly exposed, approximately 55 meters of glacier thinning is estimated to have occurred in a quarter-century — thinning over 80 times faster than the nearly 2,000 years it took to form the ice at the surface. It also suggests that the South Col Glacier may be on the way out – it may already be a ‘relic’ from an older, colder, time.”

The researchers also note that increasing overall surface ice mass loss in the region — the transition from permanent snowpack to majority ice cover — could have been triggered by climate change since the 1950s, with sublimation enhanced by rising air temperatures. The impacts of climate change on the glacier have been most intense since the late 1990s. 

“It answers one of the big questions posed by our 2019 National Geographic and Rolex Perpetual Planet Everest Expedition — whether the highest glaciers on the planet are impacted by human-source climate change. The answer is a resounding yes, and very significantly since the late 1990s,” said Paul Mayewski, Scientific and Expedition Lead, and Director, Climate Change Institute University of Maine, and lead author. 

In addition to these critical climate findings, the warming will also have a compounding effect on the experience of climbing Mt. Everest.  The surface on some sections of the route will gradually shift from snowpack to ice to exposed bedrock, and avalanches will become more dynamic due to the instability of the ice.  Glacier melt is even likely to destabilize the Khumbu base camp, home to many climbers and logistics teams throughout the climbing season. On the other hand, the warming air will mean more oxygen for climbers.

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 National Geographic and Rolex’s Perpetual Planet Expeditions 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.

“The expedition to Mt. Everest was critical to learning about the most iconic — and least understood — environment on our planet,” said Nicole Alexiev, Vice President of Science and Innovation at National Geographic Society. “Through our partnership with Rolex to study and explore Earth’s critical life support systems, our ultimate goal is to use the new information and data gathered from the expedition to support and elevate solutions that can help restore balance to our ecosystems.”

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About Rolex’s Perpetual Planet Initiative

As the 21st century unfolds, Rolex has moved from championing exploration for the sake of discovery to protecting the planet and reinforced its commitment by launching the Perpetual Planet initiative in 2019. It supports individuals and organizations using science to understand the world’s environmental challenges and devise solutions that will restore balance to our ecosystems and safeguard the Earth for future generations.

The Rolex Perpetual Planet initiative for now focuses on three key areas: supporting individuals who contribute to a better world through the Rolex Awards for Enterprise; preserving the oceans, notably through the company’s association with Mission Blue; and understanding climate and environmental change through scientific expeditions as part of its enhanced association with National Geographic, a Rolex partner since 1954.

About Perpetual Planet Expeditions  

The National Geographic and Rolex partnership supports expeditions such as the Perpetual Planet Everest and Tupungato Volcano expeditions, to explore the planet’s most critical environments. By harnessing world-renowned scientific expertise and cutting-edge technology that reveal new insights about the systems that are vital to life on Earth, these expeditions fill knowledge gaps thereby helping scientists, decision-makers, and local communities plan for and find solutions to the impacts of climate and environmental change.

To learn more about the 2019 National Geographic and Rolex Perpetual Planet Everest expedition, please visit: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/perpetual-planet/.

About National Geographic Society

The National Geographic Society is a global nonprofit organization that uses the power of science, exploration, education and storytelling to illuminate and protect the wonder of our world. Since 1888, National Geographic has pushed the boundaries of exploration, investing in bold people and transformative ideas, providing more than 15,000 grants for work across all seven continents, reaching 3 million students each year through education offerings, and engaging audiences around the globe through signature experiences, stories and content. To learn more, visit www.nationalgeographic.org or follow us on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.