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Mount Everest region glaciers retreating as climate warms

This undated photograph shows unidentified mountaineers as they walk past the Hillary Step whilst pushing for the summit of Mount Everest as they climb the south face from Nepal. (TSHERING SHERPA , AFP/GETTY IMAGES)

Even the world’s tallest mountain – first conquered by man 60 years ago today – cannot escape climate change.

A recent study led by a graduate student at the University of Milan in Italy reveals declining snow amounts and retreating glaciers in the Mount Everest region, reaffirming fears that many scientists hold – increasing global temperatures could cause irreversible damage.

The research presented at an American Geophysical Union (AGU) conference in Mexico earlier this month, shows that the glaciers in the Everest region have shrunk by 13 percent over the last 50 years.

The snowline has also moved uphill nearly 580 feet.

In this photograph taken on May 23, 2013 unidentified mountaineers look out from the summit of Mount Everest. (TSHERING SHERPA, AFP/GETTY IMAGES) In this photograph taken on May 23, 2013 unidentified mountaineers look out from the summit of Mount Everest. (TSHERING SHERPA, AFP/GETTY IMAGES)

Lead researcher Sudeep Thakuri and his team used satellite imagery and topography maps to examine changes in the region’s mountain structure. They also evaluated temperature changes and rainfall amounts using hydro-meteorological data from various Nepal Climate Observatory stations and data from Nepal’s Department of Hydrology and Meteorology.

“Human-generated greenhouse gases” are suspected to have played a large factor in the extreme melting of the world’s tallest summit, Thakuri said in a statement released by the AGU. But, he plans to do more research before making a direct-link.

The data showed that since 1992, the mountain region had a 1.08 degree-Fahrenheit increase in temperature, in addition to a 3.9 inch decrease in precipitation.

Glaciers smaller than 1 square kilometer in size are shrinking at the fastest rate. Since the 1960s, they have experienced a 43 percent decrease in surface area.

The glaciers provide a water source for nearly 1.5 billion people, according to NBC News.

“The Himalayan glaciers and ice caps are considered a water tower for Asia since they store and supply water downstream during the dry season,” said Thakuri. “Downstream populations are dependent on the melt water for agriculture, drinking, and power production.”

Thakuri’s study isn’t the first to identify climate change on Mount Everest.

In 2012, a study at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing provided the most comprehensive study of glacial structure in the region at the time.

The study was led by Yao Tandong, director of the Institute of Tibetan Research at the Chinese Academy. Paleo-climatologist Lonnie Thompson of Ohio State University also took part.

An earlier study revealing trends from the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) satellite showed that the glaciers weren’t retreating at such a rapid rate, but the satellite had only examined 7 years worth of data.

Tandong and Thompson challenged that conclusion by analyzing trends over 30-years. Their results showed that 9 percent of the area had disappeared by the early 2000s, and that the rate of retreat had accelerated.

(Note: Although glaciers around Everest and the eastern Himalayas are generally retreating, some in the west have gained mass in recent years. The situation is complicated as explained in the NPR piece: Melt Or Grow? Fate Of Himalayan Glaciers Unknown)

Glacierworks, a non-profit team of photographers led by filmmaker David Breashears, has undertaken 14 different tours to document changes in the Everest mountain region, capturing glacial change in some of the most inaccessible areas.

Using historical and current images, the team has developed interactive visualizations of glacial retreat .  In a partnership with Microsoft, a new HTML 5 website was launched today called Everest: Rivers of Ice leveraging technology that weaves together high resolution panoramas, videos, maps and comparison photos for a compelling multimedia experience.

Watch a video promo of this website below:

Mount Everest borders Nepal and China in the Himalaya mountain range. It holds the world’s highest elevation at 29,029 feet.

(The author of this post, Adam Rainear, is a Capital Weather Gang summer intern. He is double major in journalism and meteorology at Rutgers University. More info.)

(CWG’s Jason Samenow contributed to this post)

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