Climate change may leave Mount Everest ascent ice-free, say climbers

Climbers and custodians of Everest say that rapid climate change could soon make for an ice-free ascent of the world's tallest mountain.

Their warning comes come amid a new international effort to gauge the effects of climate change in the Himalayas – and shield local people from potential hazards. A US-funded mission, led by the Mountain Institute, is meeting in Kathmandu to try to find practical solutions to the threat of catastrophic high-altitude flooding from lakes forming at the foot of melting glaciers.

Mountain Institute

Imja lake (left) is one example of a prime potential danger of climate change in the mountains: catastrophic, high-altitude floods. Melting ice turns to glacial lakes which grow in size until – one day – they risk rupturing their banks, spewing out rocks and debris. Such outbursts can kill, and they almost always invariably destroy infrastructure and land, burying fields in several meters of rubble.

That's seen as the biggest potential hazard. There are more than 1,600 glacial lakes in Nepal alone, of which about a half dozen are considered very dangerous. But glacier loss could also destabilize mountainsides or devastate water supplies. Some of Asia's mightiest rivers – the Indus, Ganges, Brahmaputra – depend to some extent on seasonal glacier melt.

Scientists acknowledge they have yet to form a complete picture of the changes under way in the high Himalayas. The task of offering a definitive scientific account of the extent of melting is daunting – and not just because the area is so vast and inaccessible. Scientists are still working to recover from a PR disaster early last year when it emerged that a United Nations report on climate change had claimed – wrongly – that the Himalayan glaciers would disappear by 2035.

But growing anecdotal evidence, from climbers and local people, suggests climate change is making a strong impact even well above the 8,000m line, with signs of melting ice on the southern approach to Everest.

"When I climbed Mount Everest last year I climbed the majority of ice without crampons because there was so much bare rock," said John All, an expert on Nepal glaciers from the University of Western Kentucky. "In the past that would have been suicide because there was so much ice."

He said the terrain he crossed was very different from the landscapes described by earlier generations of climbers (left: picture taken by George Mallory, 1921). Historic photographs of the Everest region also showed a longer and deeper covering of ice.

Everest Base Camp, which occupies a high rocky plateau next to the Khumbu glacier, has undergone similar changes, said Tshering Tenzing Sherpa, who has overseen rubbish collection at
the site for the past few years. The summer monsoon months brought several deep new crevasses in the black ice beneath the rocks, he added. "Everything is changing with the glaciers." Tenzing pointed towards the Khumbu ice fall – the start of the climb, and part of a 16km stretch of ice that forms the largest glacier in Nepal. "Before, when you looked out, it was totally blue ice, and now it is black rock on top," he said. He's convinced the changes have occurred in months – not years, or even decades, but during the brief interval of the summer monsoon. "This year it's totally changed," he said

The Guardian,"Climate change may leave Mount Everest ascent ice-free, say climbers ", by Suzanne Goldenberg, accessed September 26, 2011
The Guardian, "Everest's ice is retreating as climate change grips the Himalayas", by Suzanne Goldenberg, accessed September 26, 2011


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