Is global warming destroying Mount Everest?

Mount Everest still provides breathtaking views and the greatest climbing challenge in the world, but global warming and the proliferation of unstable glacial lakes could radically alter the local environment. See more Mount Everest pictures.

In 1953, Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay were the first people to successfully summit Mount Everest, the highest peak on Earth. Now their sons are warning the world about the damage that global warming is doing to the mountain, one of world's most spectacular natural wonders. Peter Hillary and Jamling Tenzing, in an interview with British newspaper The Independent, lamented that global warming is radically altering the appearance, ecology and climate of Mount Everest and the surrounding area of Tibet. Inaction, they warn, could lead to an environmental disaster.

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Peter Hillary said that base camp at Everest has slid from an elevation of 5,320 meters, when his father climbed Everest, to 5,280 meters and continues to sink each year. The younger Hillary, who has scaled Everest twice, also warned of the effects of glacial lakes bursting. Glacial lakes that fill up with too much water can breach their natural barriers -- which themselves are frequently made of ice -- unleashing a massive flood. (We recently wrote about a lake in Chile that disappeared because of the same effect.)

In the case of Mount Everest and the surrounding area, tens of thousands of people may be at risk. Forty thousand Sherpas live at the base of the mountain. Already there are 9,000 glacial lakes in the Himalayas, 200 of which face possible glacial outburst floods. A similar flood in 1985 created a torrent of 10 million cubic meters of water. Most of a village, including a local power station, was swept away, with some people and debris ending up 55 miles away. Some lakes now exist that are 20 times the size of the one that burst in 1985. When talking to The Independent, Peter Hillary compared the effects of a glacial outburst flood to an atomic bomb.

If current patterns keep up, most of the glaciers covering the Himalayas could melt within the next 50 years; 80 percent will be gone within 30 years. Some of these glaciers are three miles long. Mount Everest would then appear as an enormous peak of mostly exposed rock with limited areas of ice. The glacier used as Hillary and Norgay's original base camp has moved three miles in 20 years while others have disappeared entirely. Overall, glaciers in the area receded 74 meters in 2006, up from 42 meters a year between 1961 and 2001. The effects are already pronounced: climbers are warned to be on the lookout for rockslides and avalanches caused by increased snowmelt.

Beyond the effects on the immediate area, the glaciers of the Himalayas have worldwide importance. These glaciers contain 40 percent of the world's fresh water, feed nine large rivers and provide one-sixth of the world's drinking water. The fluctuations in the local water supply have caused desertification in some areas, which makes it difficult for farmers to irrigate their crops. Large rivers have appeared in some areas where they did not exist before (and at the expense of other streams).

The global warming claims of Hillary and Norgay are supported by a climate study conducted by an international team of scientists in association with the French Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The study, published in early 2007, confirmed that global warming is adversely affecting Mount Everest. Additionally, many Tibetan people, Sherpas, guides and frequent visitors to the area relate stories of glaciers and ice features such as serac forests -- huge columns of ice formed by glaciers -- disappearing or retreating to higher altitudes.

Global warming isn't the only danger facing Mount Everest. On the next page, we'll look at some of the other threats impacting the region.