Are the Mt. Everest Avalanche Deaths More Proof of Climate Change?

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The tragic death of 16 by avalanche on Mt. Everest last Friday — 13 of them the professional Sherpa guides who make the ascent possible for the hundreds of unskilled climbers who now attempt it each year — has drawn attention not only to the hazardous and sometimes fatal conditions under which the Sherpas work but also to more evidence of global warming.

The treacherous conditions in the Himalayas, with death just a misplaced footstep away in the best of times, are believed increasingly dangerous and uncertain because of climate change. “While it is impossible to link any single event to long-term changes in the global climate,” the Associated Press (AP) reports, “scientists say the future will likely hold more such dangers in high-altitude regions.

Avalanches of snow, rock or ice could increase. Climbing and trekking terrains would become unsteady. Glaciers may be more unpredictable. Storms will become more erratic, and the Himalayas in particular could see more snow as warming oceans send more moisture into the air for the annual Indian monsoon that showers the 2,400-kilometer (1,500-mile) mountain range.

Friday’s disaster occurred at the Khumbu Icefall, long recognized as one of Everest’s most dangerous spots, as the edge of the slow-moving glacier is known to crack, cave and send huge chunks of ice tumbling without warning.

“It’s Mother Nature who calls the shots,” Tim Rippel, an expedition leader, said in a blog post from Everest base camp as many of the 400 Sherpa guides were leaving, demanding better government compensation for the high risks they take in helping climbing companies ferry rich tourists up the peak. ‘The mountain has been deteriorating rapidly in the past three years due to global warming, and the breakdown in the Khumbu Icefall is dramatic,” he said. “We need to learn more about what is going on up there.”

The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports that over the last century, global temperatures have gone up 1.4 degrees Fahrenheit, but in the Himalayas, the rate is up to three times higher. University of Arizona hydrologist Jeff Kargel, who is the head of a project using satellites to measure the glaciers of the Himalayas, told AP, “You can be sure that if the climate is changing — and it is — then glaciers are changing and the danger is shifting. It doesn’t necessarily mean it’s getting worse, it just means you don’t know.”

As mountaineer, filmmaker and author James Balog told Bill Moyers in 2012, “Glaciers have always advanced and receded… That’s a natural part of the earth’s cycle. But what is very well established from the science of the past several decades is that the rates of change that we’re seeing right now are much greater than what they had been not very many years ago.

There’s been a significant acceleration of glacial retreat over the past 30 or 40 years. And that seems to clearly be tied to changes in the atmosphere and the impact of carbon dioxide and methane and nitrous oxide on the composition of the atmosphere in this. It’s all part of this cycle of changing weather patterns and changing ocean currents and temperatures that we’re seeing in a lot of places in the world. We can see that we’re now in a really extremely anomalous, weird condition in terms of the earth’s long term history.

It’s a warning that Apa Sherpa, the guide who has summited Everest a record 21 times, has been shouting for years. Trails once covered with thick ice and snow are now “full of bare and exposed rock,” he told AP. “The danger level has significantly risen for climbers.”

Michael Winship is the Emmy Award-winning senior writer of Moyers & Company and BillMoyers.com, and a former senior writing fellow at the policy and advocacy group Demos. Follow him on Twitter: @MichaelWinship.
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