We’ve known for years that climate change is having a dramatic effect on the Himalaya. The glaciers found there have been retreating at an alarming rate for some time now and as a result, rivers and streams have been drying up too. But the latest sign that the mountain range is undergoing significant change came this past week when it was revealed that Nepal will be forced to move Everest base camp to a lower altitude due to changing conditions that are making the current location unsafe.
For nearly 70 years, base camp on the south side of Everest has remained at roughly the same spot. Located on the Khumbu Glacier at about 5364 meters (17,600 feet), the campsite has served as the launching pad for countless expeditions and attempts on the summit. It serves as the home for climbers, who often spend six to eight weeks on the mountain acclimatizing for their chance to stand at the highest point on the Earth’s surface.
Prior to the boom in commercial climbing during the 1990s, base camp was usually inhabited by a small group of elite climbers who had come to test their skills on the world’s highest peak. That changed once professional guide services began taking paying clientele up the mountain. Today, during the busy spring climbing season in Nepal, Everest base camp is home to as many as 1500 people. A number that is likely to continue to grow in the years ahead.
All of those climbers are now pitching their tents on an increasingly unstable sheet of ice. The glacier has gotten thinner and more fragile in recent years to the point that it is not uncommon for large cracks and crevasses to form overnight. This has resulted in growing concerns over the safety of the current location and prompted a search for a safer spot further down the Khumbu Valley and off the snow and ice.
A Changing Environment
According to the BBC, there are a number of factors that are causing the current location of the base camp to become untenable. Climate change is one of those factors, as warming temperatures have eroded the glacier and the Khumbu Icefall that sits just above EBC. In the spring, meltwater plays a significant role in creating cracks in the ice. This process has been going on for years but seems to be accelerating.
But that isn’t the only factor causing changes at Everest base camp. The sheer number of people that live in EBC are also having an impact. The amount of kerosene and gas that is used to keep all of those people warm and comfortable is contributing to the melt-off, as is the more than 4000 liters of urine that is generated at the site each day.
A 2018 research study indicates that the Khumbu Glacier near base camp was losing about a meter of ice each year. That equates to shedding 9.5 million cubic meters of water on an annual basis. Because of this, the mountain is becoming increasingly unstable, leading to more avalanches, tumbling rocks, and collapses of the seracs in the icefall.
Because of the concerns over the safety of climbers, Nepali officials have reportedly begun looking for a new location to serve as base camp. The spot not only has to be safe and stable but large enough to support the tent city that sprouts up on the mountain each spring. Right now, it looks like EBC will be situated 200-400 meters (656-1312 feet) further down the mountain, although the exact place has yet to be determined.
While dropping base camp to a lower point on the mountain will improve safety it will make for a longer hike to and from Camp 1. That trek is already considered one of the most challenging due to the instability and dangers that come with the icefall. It can also be tricky on the descent following the summit push, as climbers are often exhausted and in a hurry to get back to base camp to celebrate and rest. Still, the extended segment shouldn’t be dangerous or difficult, just a little longer to navigate.
The BBC article linked to above says that the planned relocation of Everest Base Camp isn’t scheduled to take place until 2024. That means we’ll have one more spring season at the current location before things begin to change. It wouldn’t be surprising to see a few teams take up residence at the new location next year just to get a sense of the new environment. But it seems we can expect a wholesale move soon enough.
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