Everest Melting? High Signs of Climate Change

Stentor Danielson
National Geographic News
June 5, 2002

A team sponsored by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has found signs that the landscape of Mount Everest has changed significantly since Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay first conquered the peak in 1953. A primary cause is the warming global climate. But the growing impact of tourism is also taxing the world's highest mountain.

The team found that the glacier that once came close to Hillary and Norgay's first camp has retreated three miles (five kilometers). A series of ponds that used to be near Island Peak—so-called because it was then an island in a sea of ice—had merged into a long lake.

"It is clear that global warming is emerging as one, if not the, biggest threat to mountain areas," says Roger Payne, sports and development director at the International Mountaineering and Climbing Federation (UIAA), and one of the expedition's leaders. "The evidence of climate change was all around us, from huge scars gouged in the landscapes by sudden, glacial floods to the lakes swollen by melting glaciers. But it is the observations of some of the people we met, many of whom have lived in the area all their lives, that really hit home," he said in a statement released by UNEP.

The expedition, made up of seven people, climbed Island Peak before returning to its headquarters in Kathmandu on Saturday.

Changing Conditions

The expedition talked to local people, including experts at Sagarmatha (Everest) national park and Thyangboche Monastery. These people told them of the changing environmental conditions they had seen during their lives in the Himalayas.

Tashi Janghu Sherpa, president of the Nepal Mountain Association, "told us that he had seen quite rapid and significant changes over the past 20 years in the ice fields and that these changes appeared to be accelerating," said Ian McNaught-Davis, president of the UIAA and another of the expedition's leaders.

"It was the Lama's [Lama Rinpoche of Thyangboche Monastery] impression that such events were becoming more frequent and a rising phenomenon of the past eight to nine years," McNaught-Davis said.

The climatic changes have caused problems for residents of the area. A massive flood caused by water melted from the glaciers wiped out old wooden bridges. The bridges have been replaced with higher, stronger metal ones to reduce the possibility of damage from future floods.

UNEP scientists, working with experts from the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) based in Kathmandu, have used satellites and on-the-ground studies to pinpoint 44 glacial lakes in Nepal and Bhutan that are now so swollen, they could burst their banks in as little as five years.

Tourism has also taken its toll on the environment around Mount Everest. Tourists—27,000 of them a year—outnumber the local Sherpa population of 3,000. In higher altitudes, overharvesting juniper and cushion shrubs for fuel wood has led to a loss of wildlife and opened up the possibility of erosion.

Continued on Next Page >>


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