Photograph by Paul Andrew Lawrence, Alaska Stock/National Geographic
Published September 13, 2013
Reports of the demise of Mount McKinley—or at least of its record height falling some 83 feet—appear to be exaggerated, federal officials said Friday.
News of the decline to merely 20,237 feet (6,168 meters) high for the tallest peak in North America came in data released this week by Alaska Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell, reflecting an August U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) report.
Treadwell was speaking as a member of the Alaska Mapping Executive Committee, which does a state and federal survey of the 49th state using radar mapping from airplanes.
"North America's highest peak shrinks," said Fox News, one of many news outlets that echoed concerns about the continent's natural endowment.
However, comparing the airborne survey results to past height records—which were set by scaling the peak—represents an "apples to oranges" comparison, USGS cartographer Kari Craun said in an interview Friday.
Collected in 2010, the airborne radar data collected for the August USGS report reported an average height for the 269-square-foot (25-square-meter) area around the summit. It is not intended to represent the height at any one spot, or elevation. The state is gathering the mapping information for development purposes, Craun said, not to set height records.
It's not a true measure of a specific mountain-tip height, which was estimated in 1952 as 20,320 feet (6,193.5 meters) for Mount McKinley, also known as Denali (the Native Alaskan name for the mountain recognized by the state).
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"Nobody went and stood on that spot and did a measure to set a new elevation" for Mount McKinley, said Craun. The height of Mount McKinley hasn't changed since 1952 as far as anyone knows, she says.
What the two different height numbers reflect is a difference in measurement techniques. "I understand the difference in [height] measurements is significant," Craun said, adding that the new number is not a new official height for the mountain.
Regardless, Mount McKinley still stands safely higher than Canada's Mount Logan, which is 19,551 feet (5,959 meters) high, according to a 1991 Geological Survey of Canada expedition measurement.
"I think that was a good part of people's initial concern, and that's not an issue," said USGS spokesperson Mark Newell.
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