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.

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Other Dangers to Mount Everest

Trash, especially from abandoned equipment like oxygen cylinders, is a huge problem at Mount Everest. Here Appa Sherpa, who ­has climbed Everest 11 times, looks at­ some cylinders collected by the Nepalese government.
Trash, especially from abandoned equipment like oxygen cylinders, is a huge problem at Mount Everest. Here Appa Sherpa, who ­has climbed Everest 11 times, looks at­ some cylinders collected by the Nepalese government.

Environmental campaigners and activists say that the term "development" is simply a euphemism that covers up how projects like road building may destroy Everest's extremely fragile ecology. One glaciologist told The Times of India that "a road is like a direct attack on ecology" [Source: Times of India]. In July 2007, the Chinese government began construction on a 67-mile road leading up to Everest's base camp, while plans for a hotel were on hold. (China has occupied and ruled Tibet since 1951.) Chinese officials say that the road is important for the 2008 Olympic torch relay, which is supposed to include a stop on Everest's peak, but many people fear that it's simply the first step in a total development of the Everest area, including extensive mining.

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Following the completion of a railroad connecting China to Lhasa, Tibet's capital, millions of Chinese have visited Tibet. Some of them are tourists while others are migrant workers, looking for employment on Chinese-run building projects. The influx of tourists, including record numbers from the West, has put a significant strain on the area. The Sherpa community living near Everest has become largely dependent on income from tourism. New infrastructure has been built to support the community and the tourists, including restaurants that serve local animals to tourists.

The increase in tourism and climbers has upset the area's environmental balance. The search for firewood has caused significant deforestation and a loss of rare vegetation. As in many parts of the world, the environment has been pillaged for souvenirs, including fossils, wild animal parts and plants.

But the biggest problem may be trash. It's estimated that more than 100,000 pounds of trash has built up on Everest in the past 53 years. Preparations for the Olympic torch relay have brought thousands of people into the region, compounding the problems with trash and sanitation. There is no waste treatment or recycling facility around Everest, and every year, 36.5 million tons of wastewater flow into the Lhasa River.

The dangers to the environment, local economy and human life are potentially devastating, but the effects may be even more tragic when one considers that Mount Everest is also an essential part of the Tibetan and Nepalese cultures. Both cultures have names for the mountain describing it as a goddess. Tibet's Buddhist tradition calls Everest a holy place and an object of pride, affection and reverence. The area is dotted with Buddhist monasteries, some of which, local monks complain, have been overrun by picture-snapping tourists.

Some efforts to save Everest and the surrounding area are underway. It has been a national park and a Natural World Heritage site for more than two decades. The gathering of firewood is illegal and Nepal has instituted programs to limit litter. Tibetan officials and the Chinese government are making efforts to improve Lhasa's waste-disposal capabilities.

Individuals and private groups are helping, too. Ken Noguchi, a Japanese climber, has gathered almost 10 tons of trash on five trips to Everest. The Indian Mountaineering Federation no longer assists groups of more than 12 people in order to encourage smaller expeditions. World Environment Day 2007, organized by the United Nations, focused on the topic of "melting ice" and cast attention on Tibet's melting glaciers.

Mount Everest straddles the border between Nepal and Tibet (which is ruled by China) and so depends on efforts by both governments for cleanup and conservation. Mount Everest straddles the border between Nepal and Tibet (which is ruled by China) and so depends on efforts by both governments for cleanup and conservation.
Mount Everest straddles the border between Nepal and Tibet (which is ruled by China) and so depends on efforts by both governments for cleanup and conservation.

Despite the already visible effects of global warming and the challenges ahead, Peter Hillary, Jamling Tenzing and other environmental activists say that there's still time to prevent the complete destruction of Mount Everest's ecosystem and the Tibetan people's way of life, but serious action must begin immediately.

For more information about Mount Everest, global warming and related topics, check out the links on the next page.

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Sources

  • "Climber brings half tonne of rubbish from Everest." The Associated Press. The Guardian. May 29, 2007. http://environment.guardian.co.uk/waste/story/0,,2090065,00.html?gusrc=rss&feed=29
  • "Heatwave On The Top Of The World." Terra Daily. March 5, 2007. http://www.terradaily.com/reports/Heatwave_On_The_Top_Of_The_World_999.html
  • "Himalayan Glacial Melt." Greenpeace USA. June 6, 2007. http://www.greenpeace.org/usa/news/himalayan-glacial-melt
  • "Mount Everest Ravaged by Warming?" Discovery News. July 6, 2007. http://dsc.discovery.com/news/2007/07/06/everest_pla.html?category=earth
  • "No plans to build hotel on new road to Mount Everest base camp - for now." The Associated Press. International Herald Tribune. June 20, 2007. http://www.iht.com/articles/ap/2007/06/20/asia/AS-GEN-China-Mount-Everest-Road.php
  • Feng, Yongfeng. "Cleaning Up Mount Everest." Worldwatch Institute. May 15, 2007. http://www.worldwatch.org/node/5074
  • McDougall, Dan. "Everest at risk as new road conquers roof of the world." The Observer. July 8, 2007. http://observer.guardian.co.uk/world/story/0,,2121287,00.html
  • Milmo, Cahal and Relph, Sam. "A message from the melting slopes of Everest." The Independent. July 6, 2007. http://environment.independent.co.uk/climate_change/article2739751.ece
  • Pasternak, Alex. "China Paves Road to Mount Everest." Tree Hugger. June 20, 2007. http://www.treehugger.com/files/2007/06/everest_road.php
  • Sethi, Nitin. “Activists decry Chinese road to Mt Everest.” The Times of India. June 20, 2007. http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/Activists_decry_Chinese_ road_to_Mt_Everest/articleshow/2135076.cms