A National Geographic expedition in May installed the highest weather station in the world. It’s on Mt. Everest about 1,500 feet below the summit. It’s one of only a handful of places on the planet that reaches into the little understood sub-tropical jet stream. Researchers hope the data they gather on the jet stream will help them better understand how the highest elevations of the planet are being effected by climate change. Baker Perry is an Appalachian State geography professor who was on the team that installed the weather station.
“There’s some evidence from other parts of the Himalayas and from models to suggest that the highest elevations are actually warming faster than the rest of the planet,” Perry said.
The goal was to put the station closer to the top. But Perry said there was a problem: the long line of climbers this year waiting to reach the summit. He spoke with WFAE’s Marshall Terry
Perry: The photo that went viral from the south summit looking toward the summit that was all over the press with the just lines of people waiting to summit was actually from the day before we were up there. But the next day was not much better. We literally came to a standstill and with the number of people ahead of us, the amount of time that it was going to take was a major concern. And then just the number of people up there, regardless of the time, at that elevation and with the winds forecast to pick up were not a good combination.
Terry: And the traffic jam aside, this is an area called the death zone because there's not enough oxygen to breathe. So what kind of challenges does that cause just trying to do scientific work?
Perry:Yeah, I mean the death zone is a very difficult place to exist in let alone do any kind of work. And so we were, you know, climbing and installing the weather station with a full down suit on. This is like walking around in a sleeping bag in a sense. It's very warm but it's also very bulky. We had our face mask with a supply of oxygen coming into it and that made it more difficult to communicate and hear one another. And so that created some extra stress as our brains don't work as well up at that elevation either even when we're on oxygen there's diminished mental capacity. It was not an easy environment to work in that, to say the least.
Terry: And do I have it right that at one point you realized you forgot a piece of equipment?
Perry: We did. We were nearing completion. We had installed the solar panels, the antennas, the temperature sensors. We had just installed the cross arm that the wind sensors were to attach to and realized that the small pieces of pipe that serve as mounts for the wind sensors did not make it in the load that had been prepared the day before and distributed among about six different Sherpas. And we were left with, you know, an oh no moment. A real panic like well this is one of the most important variables that we need to collect and we can't go down without installing these wind sensors. And so I began to look around and just think with what limited brainpower I had of what might be available to serve as a mount. And sure enough we had a we had a shovel with us that had a handle that was nearly the same diameter as the mounts that we had left behind and so fortunately we were able to use that.
Terry: So you totally pulled a MacGyver on top of Mount Everest.
Perry: Well, there weren't many other options.
Terry: Was this your first time climbing Everest?
Perry: It was.
Terry: What surprised you the most up there?
Perry: I wouldn't say it was necessarily a surprise but I was consistently amazed, perhaps is a better word, at the resiliency of our team and especially the strength of our Sherpa team. There were about three of us that spent most of the month of January in Nepal training with our Sherpa team. And so that was a great opportunity to get to know them and work more closely with them and train specifically on the weather station deployment. And so I knew these guys were were phenomenal and had complete confidence in them. But you know to see them work up at those elevations and carry multiple loads at 26,000 feet and, you know, do all the work that they did with the weather stations and ice coring really was exceptional.
Terry: I want to go back for a second to the long line of climbers waiting to summit. Are there too many people climbing the mountain these days?
Perry: That's a great question and I think that's a debate that's been happening for the past 10 or 15 years. I think that there are a number of factors involved. One is that this year the weather windows were very compressed and so that meant that everyone that was on the mountain was trying to climb the mountain in just a handful of days. And so this year was worse than previous years because of the weather windows.
What is also obvious is that there's a lot of unskilled and perhaps underprepared climbers on the mountain and that's due to the fact that Nepal has no requirements. Anybody that wants to apply for a permit and join an expedition is welcome to do so as long as they pay the appropriate fee. And so that has made it very easy for people that do not have the requisite experience to join expeditions and that's a contributing factor to the traffic jams and certainly some of the deaths that are present on the mountain. It's a complicated situation because Nepal depends on the income from these climbers and all of the support staff that are associated with them. You know, it's a delicate balance between making the mountain safer and also making sure that the economic opportunities for the Sherpa people and others in Nepal stay as strong as they can be.
Terry: What about just having an increased number of people on the mountain? Does it affect the data you get from the weather station?
Perry: Well, we'll have to wait and see on that. The good news is that there's only a few weeks out of the year that people will be in the vicinity of those weather stations. And I think for the most part they will respect them and understand that the data coming in are very important for our scientific research but also recognize that the data are very valuable for forecasting and making the climbing route safer.