Mount Everest’s Poop Situation Is About To Go From Bad To Worse

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Mount Everest, Nuptse and Lhotse at sunset.

You may have heard that Mount Everest has a human poop situation. You probably have not heard how climate change will make it worse.

Here’s the necessary background: Climbing Mount Everest takes anywhere from six to nine weeks. The people who make the climb (unless subhuman) have to relieve themselves somewhere, so they do it on the mountain, usually burying it in snow piles near the trail. Over the years, so much poop has accumulated that it’s causing pollution and threatening to spread disease, the chief of Nepal’s mountaineering association said Tuesday.

What was not mentioned, however, is how that excrement might spread as climate change contributes to glacier thinning and ice melt on the legendary mountain. Jeffrey S. Kargel, a geologist and planetary scientist at the University of Arizona, told ThinkProgress that indeed, climate change is going to complicate the situation.

“To the extent that some of this is buried in snow, entombed in snow, and entombed in ice avalanches, and then the snow and ice melts, there’s going to be emission of fecal matter that’s been stored up over years and decades,” he said. “So for the mountaineers and the Sherpa support people who help the foreign mountaineers up the mountain, this is a major issue.”

Kargel can personally attest to the changes happening on Mount Everest. As a remote sensing scientist, he primarily uses satellites from space agencies around the world to observe the world’s glaciers and how they respond to climate change. He also validates those observations in the field, meaning he’s been to glaciers many times, including some near Everest.

In the Everest area, he said, all of the glaciers are undergoing net melting. “They’re shrinking,” he said. “The majority of them are just thinning in place, though the length of them isn’t changing dramatically yet.”

Those statements are confirmed by peer-reviewed research. A study published in Cryosphere, for example, shows mass net loss and thinning of Everest’s glaciers. The Kathmandu-based International Center for Integrated Mountain Development has also confirmed that Himalayan glaciers have shrunk by 21 percent over just 30 years.

Taking that into account, Kargel said the escalating poop situation would likely be most detrimental to the Sherpa guides and other mountaineers. As the mountain warms and ice is lost, he said, those people would have a greater change of encountering unearthed human fecal matter, exposing them to bacteria and potential disease.

“It’s not that everybody is suddenly going to become swallowed up in piles of you know what,” he said, “but it is a problem.”

One thing Kargel did take pains to emphasize is that, though it might catch more public attention, the excrement on Mount Everest is far from the worst issue facing the mountain and its surrounding environment because of climate change. In fact, he said, the changes occurring to all glaciers throughout the world are worrisome — particularly in arid countries where a large part of their water resources come from the icy mountains. Climate change impacts the seasonality of water flow, Kargel said, so some communities are seeing longer dry seasons because of diminished glaciers.

In Everest’s case particularly, Kargel noted one of the most pressing issues is increase in natural hazards, which makes both climbing Mount Everest and living around it more dangerous. Even without climate change, glaciers already tend to be dangerous — “anyone who gets too close could fall in a crevasse, step on a snow bridge that collapses, or get hit by falling ice or rock,” the University of Oregon’s website explains.

With climate change, however, Kargel said a wildcard is thrown into the mix. Indeed, last year saw the single deadliest disaster Everest had ever experienced, when an ice avalanche killed 16 Sherpas. That, too, could have just been bad luck, but just like with severe flooding, climate change increases the risk of those catastrophes happening.

Still, Kargel acknowledged that Mount Everest’s growing fecal problem was important, not only for the health of climbers and Sherpas but also for public perception of the mountain. People like to see Everest as pristine, and imagining that it’s covered in human poop — and knowing that it might get worse with climate change — might make people care about the mountain just a little more.

“I suppose any hook that gets people thinking about a problem is fine,” he said. “I just would hope that the biggest issues at hand are not buried in the piles of stuff.”