Dead bodies and bursting lakes: How climate change is changing Mount Everest

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How climate change is changing Mount Everest
WATCH: Climate change is having an impact on Mount Everest and studies show it's contributing to how fast glaciers are melting, revealing more than 200 bodies that have been left after death, one of multiple examples of how the mountain is changing – May 20, 2019

Mount Everest has stood the test of time as the world changed around it, but it may not remain the same much longer as the effects of climate change are starting to show an impact.

Studies have shown that climate change is contributing to how fast glaciers on the mountain are melting.

Ganga Ram Pant, CEO at the Nepal Mountaineering Association, says he’s seen snow lines that are shifting upwards as well as animal and plant life expanding upwards to higher altitudes.

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Michele Koppes, a UBC associate professor and Canada Research Chair in Landscapes of Climate Change, said the warming effects on the mountain have a cascading impact on the rest of the ecosystem — and the world.

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“As places warm and they reach above the freezing point — above zero degrees — it’s kind of like a tipping point for a cascade of effects, of hazards that increase,” Koppes told Global News.

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Here are a few ways that climate change is affecting the mountain.

Dead bodies and garbage exposed

There are some 200 bodies left on the mountain after death, Ram Pant told Global News, many of which are buried under snow and ice.

The bodies are sometimes left on the mountain because it can cost between US$20,000 and $30,000 to bring one down.

As the ice melts, more and more of them are being exposed.

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Ram Pant expects a team from the Nepal Mountaineering Association to bring down three to five bodies this season alone along with as much garbage as they can.

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Landslides and icefalls

In places like Mount Everest where people have to climb through and on top of ice, the cracks are getting deeper and more dangerous.

That means there’s a greater chance of icefalls, Koppes explained, making the journey potentially more dangerous for climbers.

Along with icefalls, climbers and residents need to be worried about rockfalls or landslides, thanks to thawing permafrost.

Joseph Shea, assistant professor of environmental geomatics at the University of Northern British Columbia, said mountains are often “held together by just frozen rocks or permafrost.”

“The warming is also melting permafrost that’s in the rocks,” Koppes said. “When it melts out in the rocks, it becomes unstable.

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“And so there’s much more chance for landslides and rock falls.”

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Shea explained it in more explicit terms.

“One thing we do know for sure (is) that rockfall hazards will increase so that is a direct consequence of climate change,” Shea explained.

Lakes bursting

As glaciers melt, water can fill lakes in the area.

But if they fill too much, they can burst through the barriers holding them back in what’s called a glacial lake outburst flood.

If the dams or ice that are keeping the lake on the mountain break, there’s little chance the lake will reform, Koppes explained.

That can have cascading effects on the water supply in the area.

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Climbing routes

The 2019 climbing season is getting underway in Nepal as a team of guides became the first people to scale Mount Everest this year.

There are 41 different teams with a total of 378 climbers who have been permitted to scale the world’s highest mountain during the spring climbing season.

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The team of guides are the ones who affix ropes and make the paths up to the 8,850-metre-high summit.

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As the ice melts, new paths will be exposed.

“In some cases, it will make things a lot harder, and you may be exposed to more hazards like rockfalls,” Shea said. “But in other cases, it may wind up making it a bit easier because, especially in the case of Everest, if you wind up not having to go through a really heavily crevassed zone, that sort of reduces your risk of icefall collapses.”

What it means for the rest of the world

What’s happening on Mount Everest is similar to what’s happening on the Rockies and the coastal mountains of B.C.

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“But the exact same thing is happening in all the mountains in Western Canada where lots of people don’t go,” Shea explained. “(Mount Everest) is just more visible and known because there’s lots of people there.”

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Koppes said that one positive effect of having more mountaineering and eco-tourism is that more people are now aware of the changes that are taking place

In Canada, “we’re seeing glaciers shrinking, we’re seeing changing water resources and habitat,” Koppes said.

“And so we should be concerned as well for our mountains and our communities that live in the mountains.”

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