Mount Everest is iconic. It’s the tallest mountain in the world and it is one of the natural wonders of planet Earth. Climbers from around the world consider it to be a crowning achievement. The extreme elevation also holds some unique secrets and can provide a perspective on natural trends and climate patterns that can’t be found anywhere else. A team of explorers and scientists from National Geographic embarked on an epic mission to access the valuable information Everest holds, and now they are ready to share the adventure with the rest of us in Expedition Everest.
The description on the National Geographic website explains, “As part of a robust effort to improve our understanding and resilience to the impacts of climate change on mountain systems, from April to June 2019, National Geographic and Tribhuvan University conducted the most comprehensive single scientific expedition to Mount Everest (known locally as Sagarmatha or Chomolungma) in history. The expedition, conducted in partnership with Rolex was the first of a series of Perpetual Planet Expeditions.”
I have been waiting anxiously for this special since attending the National Geographic Explorers Festival last summer. The explorers and scientists from Nat Geo had just completed the expedition and were present at the event to share some of the story. I got to hear firsthand from many of the team about the experience and the multi-faceted mission that spanned scientific disciplines, including geology, biology and meteorology.
The team was comprised of members from eight different countries. They set out to take the pulse of one of the most difficult to reach places on planet Earth, and to get context for changes occurring on the planet now or that have already occurred. According to National Geographic, the journey included:
- In the valleys that surround Everest, geologists faced icy waters to collect sediment samples from the bottom of a lake created by the Himalayas’ melting glaciers.
- In the areas surrounding Everest Base Camp, biologists conducted comprehensive biodiversity surveys at multiple elevations to reveal how plants, animals and insects are adapting to warming temperatures.
- Surveying the famed and notoriously treacherous Khumbu Icefall from above, a team of geographers captured ultra-high-resolution imagery of the entire Khumbu glacier that stretches from base camp all the way up the southern face of the mountain.
- At Everest’s South Col, home to some of the mountain’s strongest winds and bitter cold, climate scientists sought out thousands-of-years-old ice, retrieving the highest ice core ever collected to give them brand-new insight into how the glacier has evolved.
- In the “death zone,” above 26,000 feet, the team braved not only extreme conditions but also dangerous crowding to install the world’s highest weather station, providing near-real-time data on conditions at the roof of the world.
What Can We Learn from Everest?
I had an opportunity to speak with Tom Matthews, a climate scientist who took part in this epic expedition. Tom is a lecturer at Loughborough University in the United Kingdom with a particular interest in glacier-climate interactions.
Tom told me that research of the conditions and trends on Mount Everest gives us tremendous perspective. The expedition gave him and other scientists an opportunity to analyze glaciers at extreme altitude to learn more about how things have happened or existed over time.
He also explained that Mount Everest and some of the surrounding peaks serve as what they call a “water tower” for the region. The reserves of snow and ice in the glaciers feed water sources downstream for much of the area. Gathering insight into the health and status of the glaciers in the Himalayas is crucial for the region, and provides important evidence that can help us understand the impact of climate change elsewhere as well.
Since the team returned from their expedition, there has been a fair amount of research conducted. A paper has been written that analyzes the first 6 months of meteorological data in great detail. Tom told me that they were able to confirm evidence of melting well above the freezing line. The air is below freezing, but the intense solar radiation at that altitude and the sunshine reflecting off of the ice and snow results in a fair amount of meltwater being generated. The fact that it is melting to the extent that it is demonstrated that the mountain glaciers are much more sensitive than previously thought.
That’s just the tip of the proverbial iceberg, though. The technology used for the experiments and the equipment used to capture the journey are a story in and of themselves—and the scientific breakthroughs that have been made and will be made in the future as a result of this expedition are amazing. Now, the experience is ready to be shared with the world. Tune in tonight at 10pm Eastern / 9pm Central to watch Expedition Everest. The one-hour special—narrated by actor Tate Donovan—shares the journey of the Nat Geo scientists and explorers, highlights key moments from the groundbreaking mission, and reveals what we have learned, and what we can continue to learn from Mount Everest.