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The Controversy of Height

According to the BBC, international scientific co-operation has broken out between the Chinese and Nepalese governments as they have finally agreed to agree over the height of Mount Everest. The long-standing controversy over this issue has hinged on a vital difference of opinion: Does the height include the snow cap or not? For years, the Chinese have argued that it does not; one should only measure up to the top of the rock summit. Accordingly, the height came in at a paltry 8,844.43m instead of the 8,848.0m claimed by the Nepalese. However, a historic joint announcement has just been made regarding the latest measurement, with both parties agreeing to include the snow on the peak. Complete with snowy topping, the Everest now comes in at a majestic 8,848.86m. This is nearly one metre more than the previously measured snowy figure.

I don’t need telepathic powers to know what you are all thinking at this point: How come the BBC has failed to link this seismic news to global warming? According to the BBC, everything – and I do mean everything – that happens in the natural world is a consequence of global warming, and every single scientific advancement provides evermore convincing evidence of its pernicious impact. The growth of Mount Everest can be no exception. So why no BBC fanfare? Why no quote from a scientist saying, “Yep, growing mountains. That’s exactly what we would expect from our climate models”?

Maybe it is because the only previous pronouncement on the subject the BBC could find was that made by environmental scientist John All of Western Washington University:

“During the driest/warmest period of the year, the peak may have lost up to a metre in the past one and a half decades.”

It may have, but it turns out that it didn’t.

Then there was Anil Kulkarni, a glaciologist at the Divecha Centre for Climate Change, Indian Institute of Science:

“The Snow cap above Mount Everest is thinning. So the actual altitude is also decreasing.”

Yes, by increasing 0.86m as it turns out.

There is, of course, a perfectly simple explanation for this apparent paradox. When one determines the height of a mountain, one measures the vertical distance between its base and its peak. So it matters just as much where you consider the base to be as it does where the peak ends. Naturally enough, the chosen base will be at sea level, but global warming has been causing the sea level to rise and hence the vertical distance will have…

No, just a minute. Let me think this one through a bit more. I know this is all to do with global warming. I just need a bit longer to work it out.

I’ll get back to you.

28 thoughts on “The Controversy of Height

  1. At around the time Prof Viner was talking about children and snow, there was a report, possibly in the Guardian, of Mont Blanc losing its snow cover because of global warming. Oddly, the next time I saw a report about Mont Blanc, it had gained height. It might have been the wrong kind of snow, however

    Liked by 1 person

  2. John, thank you – that was priceless. I’ve not had a great day, but as it draws on into evening, you have cheered me up and made me smile.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. DFHunter,

    I agree. Given that the BBC article was written by one of their ‘Environment Correspondents’ (as we have all come to expect), we could do with some authoritative input from Cliscep’s own resident Geology Correspondent. I tried to hint at the true explanation of the increase when I used the double entendre ‘seismic news’, but even there the facts of the matter are not straightforward. The scientific consensus appears to be that the 2015 earthquake resulted in a reduction in height (Note that the BBC’s ‘Mt Everest Grows’ article is headed by a photo of Everest with the caption ‘Some geologists believe the 2015 earthquake may have changed Everest’s height’. Only in the depths of the article does one read that this ‘changed height’ is referring to a reduction!).

    At the end of the day, the change of height may be simply due to improved instrumentation and methodology of measurement. They did it for the seas, so why not for the mountains?

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  4. MiaB,

    Yes, the Victorian alpinists did achieve a great deal with their hemp ropes and heavy duty leather boots. There again, they didn’t have to deal with the effects of climate change:

    “How Climate Change is Making Mount Everest More Dangerous”

    https://www.climbing.com/news/climate-change-on-mount-everest-old-bodies-and-new/

    What with increased rock and ice falls, and the exposure of more dead bodies as the glaciers make their escape, it is beginning to look pretty grim on the south face.

    On the other hand, at least there is more oxygen on the summit to look forward to:

    “Global warming impacts a wide range of human activities and ecosystems. One unanticipated consequence of the warming is an increase in barometric pressure throughout the troposphere. Mount Everest’s extreme height and resulting low barometric pressure places humans near its summit in an extreme state of hypoxia. Here we quantify the degree with which this warming is increasing the barometric pressure near Everest’s summit and argue that it is of such a magnitude as to make the mountain, over time, easier to climb.”

    https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/20039819/

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  5. As a boy I was told Everest was the world’s highest mountain with a height of 30,002 ft. Much later I discover that this height was a fabrication by India’s chief surveyor who thought that the measured height of 30,000 ft would not be believed (considered as a rounding error) so he added the two feet to make it seem more accurate. I also learned of a different height of 30,029ft and for decades have lived with this dichotomy.

    Now I learn that the Chinese and Nepalese have independent and differing measurements that differ because one side measures the height of the uppermost rock whereas the other side includes the few metres of ice that lie on top of the rock. I’m with the icy brigade. If I had climbed to the very top of the mountain, mostly across a glacier, I would not spurn those uppermost few metres because they weren’t rock.

    As to whether Everest is still rising, well it is and for two reasons: first the Indian subcontinent is still moving inexorably northwards and the Himalayas which are a consequence of this movement are still growing and being pushed upwards like a rocky rug, and second because of the removal of rock by erosion to form extensive valleys. The average height of the mountain range is becoming lower as a result of this erosion and the weight of the whole mountain chain lessens. Just as areas of the Earth formerly covered by Pleistocene glaciers are rising as a result of isostasy, so the Himalayas are rising as a result of the erosional removal of material from its growing and deepening valleys. So the mountain peaks continue to rise. There are estimates for this rise and for the northward shove of the mountains but I don’t know them.

    If you include ice in your height measurement then climate change might have an effect on the mountain’s height, but not through increasing temperature. Additional height might result from more snowfall (more storms?) whereas less ice might result from sublimation with less cloud. You need to ask a resident meteorologist for their opinion.

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  6. John, thank you for this thread and an opportunity to think about something other than the US election or measures taken to combat Covid19. I have been moving house and have been without internet access for some days until this morning. Looking at the travel taken by other threads during this absence, I don’t think I’ll even bother reading them, other than the briefest of skims.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Alan,

    I must admit that I had you partially in mind when I wrote this. More generally, I wanted to provide something for which it should be impossible to find a covid or Trump connection. I hope that, by mentioning this lack of connection, we haven’t offered a pretext 🙂

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  8. Alan: I fancy you were a little unlucky today. There’d been nothing on the US election for three days until I (after two days break myself) put up something on that old Baloney thread, which (I assume) prompted Jaime to point to Delingpole on ConservativeWoman. (A mental image that may not help!) The coronavirus and its enemies (Drake channels Popper) has loomed larger while I myself have been away, no doubt. Despair was meant to be climate despair, as you probably remember. And may I say that I appreciated your comment there a great deal – and remain fascinated by the claim that dawn and dusk have such different emotive impact. Unless it was a joke? Sorry that I didn’t feel I had time to get into that before.

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  9. No joke:

    Red sky at night
    Shepherd’s delight.
    Red sky in the morning
    Shepherd’s warning

    Learnt at Mother’s knee and reading Mathew’s Gospel

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  10. Ha. I still count it as a joke then. (My original sentence was also a joke, in that I googled for Burke’s words and the first thing I found was a ‘tranquil’ backdrop at BrainyQuote, which seemed quite incongruous.) I thought you were referring to some psychological science. And doesn’t that betray so much?

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  11. Goodness gracious. I appear to have added a thousand feet to Mt. Everest height, not once but three times and no one commented. I cannot believe that I am held in such reverence at Cliscep that no one wished to correct me. So I must conclude that Napoleon’s cult of measurement has finally swept all before it and Cliscep’s cognoscenti (except those in Trumpland) have lost the ability to use imperial body measurements. So sad.🤓👣

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  12. Sorry, Alan. I did think that the numbers were not as I remembered but I just assumed it was me having the senior moment 🙂

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  13. To Alan Kendall:
    I once read “Pronounced atmospheric scattering of shorter wavelengths, resulting in selective transmission below 650 nanometres with progressively reducing solar elevation, produces a tendency toward irrational euphoria among primitive herders of domesticated ovines.”
    James Hogan – The Two faces of Tomorrow – i.e. Red sky at night, shepherd’s delight!

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  14. Russ. I’m almost lost for words, other than that James Hogan must be prejudiced against caprine herders. The other version of this old weather lore of course refers to sailor’s delight and warning, demonstrating its widespread application.
    And no mention of the dusk “green flash” that I have looked for many times (in vain) on the Florida Keys looking out to sea, although the weather significance of which escapes me.

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  15. It’s always seemed the me that the red sky doggrel was about as useful as the Welsh version, to whit:

    If you can see the mountain it’s going to rain.
    If you can’t see the mountain it is raining.

    Liked by 1 person

  16. Bill, on the west coast of Cumbria, the saying is:

    If you can see the Isle of Man it’s going to rain.
    If you can’t see the Isle of Man, it is raining.

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  17. @Mark – on the Isle of Man we now say:

    if you see anybody from the UK or Ireland trying to get into the IOM, lock them up for 14 days 🙂

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  18. ps – should add (for info to other readers) the Isle of Man has no lockdown, pubs & everything have been back to normal for months 🙂

    down side – hard to get off or on the Island 😦

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  19. Everest was triangulated in the Great Trigonometrical Survey in 1870 from the valley, usually these days a gps transponder is placed on the top of high mountains, that explains the difference with sea level definition and the inclusion of snow, this can add up to a meter error.

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  20. John, Sorry for imposing upon your much admired thread, but I don’t know what else I can do, other than to meekly submit.

    That’s it. Never more will I comment upon a Jamie thread. Her action of removing my post critical of her, is akin to behaviours encountered on sites like ATTP. To prevent this post being removed, I am posting it on another thread where she may have less control.

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  21. Alan,

    No problem. I feel your pain. I remember how incensed I was when Ben Pile deleted one of my comments on here. Moderating a comment from one of Cliscep’s stalwarts is not something I think I could bring myself to do. But each to their own, I suppose.

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  22. seems like a good time to say “Happy New Year” to everybody, before the punch up starts 🙂
    ahh – reminds me off Hogmanay in Scotland – “you hit me first” – “no I didn’t you bampot”

    goodwill to all – “Lang may yer lum reek” seems apt

    Like

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