Extreme ice melt on Mount Everest

Ice sample above Everest South Col (red arrow; yellow arrow shows location on the “Balcony” where a weather station was installed)

The ice high up on Mount Everest, the highest mountain on Earth, is also under attack. If climate change continues unabated, climbers could find a completely ice-free Everest South Col at around 8,000 meters in 2050. This is the conclusion reached by researchers from the University of Maine in the USA.

While the South Col Glacier (SCG) used to lie under a blanket of snow, the ice is now often exposed to solar radiation without protection, which could lead to “extremely rapid mass loss,” the scientists wrote: “At an estimated thinning rate approaching 2,000 mm (two meters) per year, even glaciers such as SCG that are above 8,000 m may disappear by mid-century.”

Rapid process

South side of Mount Everest
Nepalese south side of Mount Everest

The study had analyzed, among other things, a ten-meter long ice core taken in spring 2019 during an Everest science expedition: from the ice at 8,020 meters, above the South Col. Currently, there is still an ice cover of 30 to 50 meters, but the glacier has thinned by 55 meters within a quarter of a century, the scientists said. Since the late 1990s, this process has occurred “over 80 times faster than the around 2,000 years it took to form the ice now exposed at the surface of SCG,” the report said.

Man-made climate change is responsible

Glaciers are melting

Warming air temperatures, declining humidity and increasingly strong winds as a result of climate change are responsible, it said. One of the goals of the Everest science expedition three years ago was to study whether the highest glaciers on the planet are impacted by human-source climate change, said glaciologist Paul Mayewski, director of the Climate Change Institute at the University of Maine: “The answer is a resounding yes, and very significantly since the late 1990s.” Glacier melt in the Himalayas and other mountains around the world is threatening the water supply of more than 1.6 billion people.

Everest dangers on the rise

Khumbu Icefall
Dangerous Khumbu Icefall

The development will also have consequences for climbers on Everest, the scientists predict, “as loss of high elevation snow and ice cover continues to thin exposing bedrock; warm thicker air increases oxygen availability; ice block movement in the Khumbu Icefall and avalanches becomes even more dynamic; and glacier melt destabilizes the Khumbu base camp that is home to around 1,000 climbers and logistics teams during the climbing season.”

Some of these predictions coincide with what expeditions have experienced in recent years on the normal route on the south side of Everest: more blue ice, more rock sections completely devoid of snow or ice cover, more rockfall, more frequent collapsing seracs in the Khumbu Icefall. It’s more like five past than five minutes to midnight.

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