Climate Change Makes Mountaineering Riskier

The Himalayan Mountains
The Himalayas, like many other mountains around the world, are changing because of global warming.

Mountaineers and scientists in Nepal warn that rising temperatures are changing weather patterns and increasing the risk of deadly avalanches in the Himalayas. In the European Alps, expedition guides have witnessed growing incidences of rock fall as melting ice loosens its grip on mountain faces and cliffs. “Climate change has made the weather conditions extremely unpredictable across the mountains,” Ang Tsering Sherpa, president of the Nepal Mountaineering Association, told the BBC.

Sherpa says global warming is to blame for the unusually heavy snows that caused a deadly avalanche in Nepal in October 2005, killing 18 climbers. Temperatures are rising more rapidly in the Himalayan region than in many other places, according to Saraju Baidya, a meteorologist at Nepal’s Department of Hydrology and Meteorology. The warming is causing glaciers in the region to recede at faster rates than previously recorded and heightening the risk of flooding from glacial lakes—inundations that can wash away hydroelectric plants, bridges, and even entire villages.

Long-standing climbing routes in the Alps have become increasingly dangerous. Last July, a chunk of rock estimated at half the volume of New York’s Empire State Building fell from the east face of Switzerland’s Eiger peak, thundering down the valley and sending an enormous dust cloud over the resort of Grindelwald. In addition to higher risk of rock fall, the routes themselves can be more difficult to traverse as temperatures rise. One popular climb on the north face of the Eiger used to be 75 percent snow and ice. “Today it’s only a quarter,” Grindelwald mountain guide Marco Bomio told Reuters, adding that, “Good ice is better than bad rock.”

Other changes associated with rapidly melting ice have been reported across the globe, from the polar regions to high-mountain glaciers. “The changes are everywhere,” says Mark Bowen, author of the book Thin Ice, which details the impact of climate change on mountain regions. “They go from Patagonia to Alaska, from New Zealand to the Alps to the Himalaya.” The issue is attracting growing global attention as well: this year, “melting ice” is the theme of World Environment Day, celebrated every June 5 by the United Nations.

This story was produced by Eye on Earth, a joint project of the Worldwatch Institute and the blue moon fund. View the complete archive of Eye on Earth stories, or contact Staff Writer Alana Herro at aherro [AT] worldwatch [DOT] org with your questions, comments, and story ideas.