Mt. Everest disaster and global climate shift

There is something fundamentally wrong about the fact that there are apparently a whopping 400 tourists on Mount Everest at any one time. That's what came to light April 23, when 16 sherpa guides were killed in an avalanche. The sherpas went on strike over low pay for dangerous work, their walk-out leaving 400 jet-setters stranded on the mountain and jeopardizing the 2014 climbing season. About half the sherpas have descended from the base camp where they operate, and Ang Tshering Sherpa, president of the Nepal Mountaineering Association, said more will likely follow. (BBC News, April 25; BuzzFeed, April 23)

The avalanche at the Khumbu Icefall constitutes the deadliest single disaster on the mountain ever, but the odds are unfortunately good that we could see more in the near future. Not only because the perverse prestige-tourism commodification of the once-lonely mountain means more foot traffic, more likelihood that an avalanche will take lives, and more wear and tear on trails and glaciers—but also because of global climate change. "It's Mother Nature who calls the shots," Tim Rippel, an expedition leader, said in a blog post from the Everest base camp as the sherpas were leaving. "The mountain has been deteriorating rapidly in the past three years due to global warming, and the breakdown in the Khumbu Icefall is dramatic. We need to learn more about what is going on up there."

Added Tad Pfeffer with the University of Colorado's Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research: "Changes in snow and ice are going to strongly influence the stability of snow on a slope and the possibility of an avalanche. The danger in mountaineering is a combination of what's going on in the natural world and what the climbers are doing. People will get in trouble if they rely on what they knew in the past. They have to have their eyes open and not go somewhere or do something simply because it worked out five years earlier." (AP, April 23)

This disaster comes weeks after a little-noted news story about the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) releasing revised figures on Himalayan glacier shrinkage, attempting to correct their goof of a few years back that provided much fodder for the climate-denialist set. In a Fifth Assessment Report on climate impacts released in Yokohama, the IPCC said Himalayan glaciers would shrink by 45% by 2100, if Earth's average surface temperature rose by 1.8 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit). Under a far warmer scenario of 3.7 C (6.66 F), the reduction would be 68%. (AP, March 31)

In the erroneous report of 2010, the IPCC warned the Himalayan glaciers could vanish completely by 2035. This seems to have been due to digits getting switched—the actual projection was for 2350. As we noted at the time, the notion that the glaciers could disappear in 300 years is not exactly comforting news. In geological terms, that is the wink of an eye. And in any event, if the revised figures are to be believed, the glacier-free date would seem to be considerably in advance of 2350.

Meanwhile, more than 4,000 people have climbed Everest since 1953, when Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay first scaled the summit. "The numbers have skyrocketed in recent years along with guided expeditions charging up to $75,000 to help even novice trekkers reach the peak," writes AP. Now, as the mountain is reduced to a tourist commodity spectacle, global climate destabilization due to profilgate carbon consumption in the industrialized world (including, perversely, air travel for tourism) is both threatening the Himalayan ecology and making the sherpas' work more dangerous.

Deeply, deeply out of wack.

See our last posts on the politics of glaciers in the Himalayas, and in the Andes.

  1. Nepal drains dangerous Everest lake

    Nepal's army says it has finished draining a dangerous glacial lake near Mount Everest to a safe level. The Imja glacial lake, at nearly 5,000 meters (16,400 ft), was in danger of flooding downstream settlements, trails and bridges. The lake, which was originally 149 meters deep in places, has had its water levels lowered by 3.4 meters after months of painstaking work, officials say. Imja is one of thousands of glacial lakes in the Himalayas. Many of the lakes are said to be filling up fast because of accelerated melting of glaciers amid rising global temperatures. Last year's earthquake in Nepal is also feared to have further destabilised Lake Imja. (BBC News, Oct. 31)