The tallest mountain on the planet just got a little bit taller. Or shorter, depending on who you believe.
Yesterday, Nepal and China jointly released the findings of two high profile surveys of the Himalayan giant, with the results making headlines across the globe. The question is, whether or not the survey’s will withstand scrutiny by geographers and mapmakers, as this isn’t the first time that the peak’s official height has been called into question.
A Brief History of Everest Surveys
In the spring of 2018, the Nepali government sent a survey team to Everest to conduct the first real measurement of the mountain in more than 15 years. Their goal was to settle a long-standing debate over the actual height of the mountain. How can there be a debate over how tall a mountain is in this day and age, you ask? Well, it’s complicated.
In 1852, the first survey of the mountain—which wasn’t even called Everest yet—concluded that it rose an impressive 8839 meters (29,002 ft). That number stood until Nepal opened up to the outside following World War II. In 1954—a year after Hillary and Norgay first stood on the summit— a more modern survey was conducted by India. That endeavor ended up pushing the height up to 8848 meters (29,029 ft) and confirmed Everest’s status as the highest mountain on the planet.
From that point forward, that number was recognized as Everest’s official height, and it would remain unchallenged for nearly 50 years. In 1999, a survey team sponsored by National Geographic used high-tech instruments and GPS to measure the mountain for the first time. Their conclusion? Everest was actually 8849 meters (29,035 ft) tall.
Naturally, geographers, mapmakers, and mountaineers were confounded.
Nepal Stands Firm
When the new altitude was announced, Nepalese officials refused to acknowledge it. To them, Everest would always be 29,029 feet in height, and no foreign surveyors would ever tell them differently. All official documents referring to Everest from within the country continued to indicate that it was 8848 meters tall. That number had a nice symmetry to it.
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Their confidence didn’t even waver when yet another survey was conducted in 2005. This time, the Chinese attempted to measure Everest in a new way, using ground-penetrating radar to remove the ice and snow from the equation. Their conclusion was that the actual rock made up the peak was a mere 8844 meters (29,017 ft) in height. Something that the Nepalese flat out refused to consider.
Two Surveys Over Two Years
After a massive 7.8 magnitude earthquake shook the Himalaya in 2015, there was a lot of speculation as to whether it has caused Everest to grow or shrink in size. After all, the quake caused massive damage across the region, destroying entire towns, shifting the landscape, and claiming the lives of more than 9000 people.
This prompted Nepal to send a survey team to the South Side of Everest in the spring of 2019 to remeasure the mountain once again. The group spent weeks in the Khumbu Valley using spotting scopes and GPS devices to take measurements. They even sent climbers to the summit to take readings from there too.
When the survey was completed, officials promised they would reveal their results before the end of the year. But that time came and went without any data being revealed, causing some to wonder if a cover-up was afoot.
With Everest mostly empty due to COVID, the Chinese sent a survey expedition of their own to Everest this past spring. This larger and better-equipped group went through a similar process, capturing data from the surrounding landscape and sending climbers to the summit. As with their Nepalese counterparts, they too promised results would be forthcoming soon. Thankfully, they were delivered on that promise.
A New Height is Revealed (Again!)
In their joint announcement yesterday, Nepali and Chinese officials shared their findings for the very first time. In the report, the two nations reveal that Everest is actually 8848.65 meters or 29,031.69 feet tall. From a geological or cartographic standpoint, that is significant, but not so much to the climbers that go to the summit each year.
Perhaps the biggest thing to come out of this news is that China and Nepal agree on the official height for the first time in more than a decade and a half. The new number still has to be vetted by outside researchers, but it looks like moving forward, all official documents from both the North and South Side of the mountain will reflect the same measurement.
Hopefully the current height will stand for another 50 years.
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