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Why Mount Everest Is Shrinking

By Emily Atkin  

"Why Mount Everest Is Shrinking"

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A view of Mount Everest, the highest peak in the world, from Tibet.

A view of Mount Everest, the highest peak in the world, from Tibet.

CREDIT: Shutterstock

The world’s tallest mountain is losing its cool, and it might be our fault.

On Thursday, Chinese scientist Kang Shichang told the country’s official Xinhua news agency that Mount Everest’s glaciers have melted by 10 percent over the past 40 years, and that the shrinkage is due to climate change. Shichang, a researcher at the Tibetan Plateau Research of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), said the statement was based on a long-term compilation of remote sensing and on-site monitoring data.

The report did not indicate when or where that data would be released. But it’s not the first time scientists have suggested that Everest and other Tibetan ice mountains are shrinking.

In September, researchers from CAS released a study showing glaciers on the Tibetan Plateau — the world’s third-largest ice reservoir — “virtually being decapitated” by a warming climate. What made that shrinkage particularly startling to scientists was the fact that mountains were melting from the tops, and not from the bottoms, as higher elevations tend to have colder temperatures year-round.

Research published by the Kathmandu-based International Center for Integrated Mountain Development in 2011 also confirmed that the Himalayan glaciers had shrunk by 21 percent over just 30 years, as a report in Forbes points out.

As for Everest, Shichang was quoted as saying the glacial lake downstream of the mountain is now 13 times bigger than it was four decades ago, another sign of shrinkage. The increased water also increases the risk of flood, Shichang said, while the increasing lack of snow at the top contributes to more rock slides and increasingly deadly climbing.

Combined, these could spell disaster — not only for the natural phenomenon, but for Nepal’s roughly $350 million a year tourism industry, which is largely made up of climbers looking to scale the mountain.

Climbing Everest has already become more dangerous, evidenced if only by last week’s avalanche, which killed 16 — the single deadliest disaster there.

While a single tragic event such as that avalanche is impossible to attribute solely to long-term changes in the climate caused by increased greenhouse gas emissions, scientists told the Associated Press on Wednesday that the effects of climate change would make avalanches in high-altitude areas such as Everest more likely in the future.

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