As climate change is rapidly affecting the Himalayas, Nepal is planning to shift the base camp of Mount Everest from the melting glacier that is said to becoming unsafe because of human activity and global warming. To make sense of the impact of global warming on Mount Everest and its base camp and the need to change it to a lower altitude, the Report Himalayas talked to Dr. Sudeep Thakuri, a Nepal-based renowned climate scientist and Dean of faculty of science Nepal based Mid-Western University.
Q: As a climate scientist, could you please tell us how is global warming affecting the Everest Base Camp (EBC)?
Ans: Everest Base Camp (EBC) is located at 5364 meters above sea level. This high-altitude base camp is on the transition zone of Khumbu, the debris-covered glacier, and the upper clean ice. I have been visiting this region since 2007 and can tell you that glaciers, glacial lakes, and snow covers in this area have experienced drastic changes over the last few decades.
Our study on glacier change in the Mount Everest region shows that about 390 square kilometers of the surface is covered by the glaciers in the upper Dudh Koshi River valley where Mount Everest is located. In the last half a century (from 1962), the region has already lost about 15 percent of the glacier surface area in the region, with the retreat of an average of about 6 meters per year of glacier length. On average, we have also lost 0.6 meters of thickness every year from the ice mass. The transient snow line has shifted upward (higher elevation) by about 180 meters. The debris coverage area of the glaciers has increased by about 31 percent due to erosion and rock falls from the steep mountainsides. As a result, the high mountain areas are becoming dark.
At around 5000 meter elevation, we have observed an increase in the mean temperature by 0.044 °C/year with an increasing trend in the minimum temperature (+0.072 °C/year), higher than the maximum temperature, (+0.009 °C/year). The increase in temperature is higher in the higher elevation compared to the lower elevation. Furthermore, there has been a substantial liquid precipitation decrease by 9.3 mm/year during the monsoon season. These climate behaviors directly affect the cryosphere processes.
Q: There were reports that there is a plan to move the Everest base camp. Is there really a need to shift the base camp?
Ans: I have also heard, on the media, about the plan. However, there is no official word on why the base camp is being shifted. I believe, if it is related to the melting of the snow and glacier ice by human activity in and around the EBC, I would say, conceptually it is reasonable. The shifting of EBC alone, however, in not sufficient. You know, the basecamp is located just below the Khumbu Ice-fall (the most dangerous section of Mount Everest summit route) and is nestled in the partly clean ice area. It is also the area where clean glacier ice begins. Increased human activities in the base camp region have disturbed the landscape around there.
Also, from the security point of view, the current EBC has located in a high-risk zone as the possible snow, ice, and rock avalanches can also create devastating effects on the region. Serac collapses and falls can create avalanches. The rise in temperature and permafrost degradation can potentially increase the chances of avalanches in the regions.
Q: How has global warming impacted the Everest base camp over the years?
Ans: One can easily observe that global warming and increased human activity in the base camp region have changed the landscape. Increased human activity together with global warming has disturbed the clean ice. The landscape around the EBC has physically changed in the last few decades. The glacier ice pinnacles in and around the basecamp have considerably reduced. This is surely exacerbated by human activity in the base camp, including frequent movements and local heating effects.
Human-generated wastes, both solid and liquid, are increasing and impacting the region. The long-range transport of pollutants, especially black carbon, has also been reported on the surface of snow and ice. In the past, biomass burning for space heating and cooking was also an issue for the local effect, but now after shifting to LPGs and petroleum, these practices have changed but the use of fuel has increased. The human activities and transport of pollutants in and around the basecamp have disturbed the clean ice and probably is the reason for the rapid melting of the ice (but it needs verification from the further study). Pollution, especially the black carbon deposit on the surface of the clean ice and snow, enhances the melting.
Q: What steps are needed to deal with the increasing global warming and human activity at the base camp and Mount Everest?
Ans: Impacts of direct human activities at the base camp and Mount Everest can be minimized to some extent with the planned mountaineering arrangements. But the increasing global warming issue may not be addressed just by shifting the base camp or making similar local efforts. I assume that only shifting the base camp by few kilometers away may not solve the problem in long run.
Global warming is a complex, interconnected and enduring issue, at least, for some more time. Thus an individual effort, though essential, cannot be enough. Solutions to address global warming are also connected to science, politics, economics, and socio-culture. Each and every one of us should be responsive and take action at our own level. It requires changes in policies, behavior, and technologies. The immediate action, in my view, is to identify and accept the mechanism to adapt to the changing context.
Q: Lastly, the Himalayan glaciers are witnessing changes because of climate change and global warming. What is needed to improve the situation for the future?
Ans: Glaciers in the Himalayas are very good indicators of ongoing global warming and human activities. There is clear and substantial evidence that suggests changes in the glaciers in the Himalayan region with rapid pace in the last three decades.
Global change and issues of the Himalayas is not only local issue. It is connected with the global concern of this time. As we humans are the cause of this issue, we have the responsibility to find solutions.
It is challenging to expect immediate improvements but slow and continuous efforts can surely improve the situation. We have to work collaboratively to improve the situation for the future. We need collaboration between the people of all the sectors and collaboration between the countries to work on having less carbon footprints, improving efficient tools and technologies, continuous monitoring of the mountain activities for strengthening the knowledge and generating the facts on the impacts of global warming and human activity in such regions. We need to set-up the early warning systems for safeguarding the lives, properties of the mountaineers, visitors, and people living nearby or down valleys.