Bad news: what the largest expedition ever carried out on Everest revealed

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A multidisciplinary team of 34 researchers carried out the expedition largest ever made to the top of the world: the Mount Everest. The mission, named National Geographic and Rolex Perpetual Planet Everest Expedition, was made up of glaciologists, geologists, meteorologists, biologists and cartographers, and its objective was to analyze the consequences of the human activity about the environment and its population. Their results, one year later, have just been published in the journal One Earth.

Heat, melting ice and microplastics, which reveals the largest expedition ever carried out on Everest
The National Geographic and Rolex Perpetual Planet Everest Expedition has been the most important to date. / Baker Perry (National Geographic)

The magnitude of this expedition has allowed the different teams to study multiple effects of human action: from the thaw of glaciers and the risk of landslides, to the loss of biodiversity and agrodiversity in the Himalayas, including increased atmospheric pressure or changes in rainfall patterns. They have even detected microplastics in the highest areas.

One of the most relevant works of those three months of data collection has been the comparison of the ice mass from the last six decades. Thanks to a historic series of satellite photographs, researchers have observed a constant loss of mass from the 1960s to the present.

Glaciers located at 5,000 meters of altitude have thinned one meter per year since 1960

“This has mainly happened at a rate of weight loss of about one meter a year in the glaciers located at an altitude of about 5,000 meters above sea level, but we have also measured the thinning of the ice above 6,000 meters on the northern slopes of Everest," he tells SINC. Owen King, glaciologist at St. Andrews University (Scotland) and author of one of the studies.

According to King and his colleagues, the main reason for this melting is the increase in temperatures. “The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC, for its acronym in English) predicts greater warming in this region in all the scenarios it contemplates in its greenhouse gas concentration trajectories, so we expect ice loss to continue at least at the current rate in future decades ”King explains.

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One of the teams drills the ice at 8,020 meters above sea level./ Mark Fisher (National Geographic)

If the regression of the glaciers continues, scientists fear that in the medium term this deterioration could reduce the water resources of local populations in the coming decades, since the water from the melting of the Himalayan glaciers is one of its main sources, especially all outside the monsoons. 

“Within the Khumbu Valley, melting glaciers provide 65 % of the water used by the local community during the dry season. The continued melting of glaciers and the decline of snow cover will clearly increase the water stress within the Mount Everest region before the onset of the monsoon each year,” this study concludes.

It's getting easier to climb the mountain

Melting ice is but one of the many effects of rising temperatures on Mount Everest. Another important discovery of the expedition 2019 National Geographic and Rolex Perpetual Planet Everest Expedition shows how over the years there is more oxygen in the high areas of the mountain, facilitating the work of climbing for climbers.

“The atmosphere below the summit expands as it warms, causing air pressure to increase on Everest. Consequently, the pressure of the air is proportional to the amount of oxygen. On average, warming will make breathing slightly easier at the summit, but let's not forget some of its other consequences," he warns SINC. Tom Matthews, climatologist at Loughborough University (UK) and co-author of another of the studies, published in the magazine iScience.

“Warming will make breathing slightly easier at the summit, but let's not forget some of its other consequences,” warns Tom Matthews

To estimate the oxygen level, Matthews and his team turned to data provided by several weather stations installed on the slopes of the mountain. “By linking recent observations from these stations with longer records of regional climate, we were able to reconstruct pressure and oxygen variations since 1979,” explains the climatologist.

Although it may seem like a peculiarity of the Asian mountains, Matthews affirms that this phenomenon can be applied to all the summits in the world, although he believes that it only makes sense on the highest ones. “This is because the human body is more sensitive to changes in oxygen at lower pressure. That is, at a higher altitude,” he argues.

“The increase in atmospheric pressure at the summits and the availability of oxygen reflects global warming of the atmosphere,” he explains.

Microplastics at the ends of the Earth

Partly unrelated to the climate crisis, but linked to human action, a third study issued by this expedition and published in the magazine One Earth alerts of the presence of microplastics in the highest areas of Everest.

“According to our results, microplastic contamination has been found from the bottom of the sea to near the top of the highest mountain in the world — 8,440 meters above sea level. Although it is often linked to the ocean, plastic pollution is omnipresent in our environment,” he certifies to SINC. Imogen Napper, doctor in Marine Sciences, researcher at the University of Plymouth (United Kingdom) and author of the study.

“Although often linked to the ocean, plastic pollution is omnipresent in our environment,” says Imogen Napper.

By taking of snow and water samples from the streams, Napper and his colleagues detected plastic particles less than 5 millimeters thick in their laboratory. “I honestly didn't know what to expect in terms of results, but I was very surprised to find these contaminants in every snow sample taken, which ranged from between 3 and 119 microplastics for every liter of snow,” details the researcher.

The highest concentration of microparticles was detected in the Everest Base Camp, where climbers spend a considerable amount of time. There, the sample contained 79 microplastics per liter.

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The team of geologists collected water samples in a glacial lake in Gokyo (Nepal)./ Freddie Wilkinson (National Geographic)

Far from the sources of pollution that end up dumping plastic into the seas, this time it comes from the material used in this type of expeditions, such as fibers polyester, acrylic, nylon and polypropylene.

"These materials are increasingly used to make the high-performance outdoor clothing used by climbers, as well as tents and climbing ropes, so we suspect that these types of items are the main source of contamination rather than things like food and drink containers,” Napper considers.

According to the author of the publication, “environmental efforts currently tend to focus on reducing, reusing and recycling larger waste. This is important, but we must also start focusing on technological solutions deeper ones that focus on microplastics, such as changing the design of fabrics and incorporating natural fibers instead of plastic when possible,” says the author.

“Knowing that we are polluting near the top of the highest mountain on Earth is a true revelation: we have to protect and take care of our planet,” concludes the researcher.



Octavio Alonso