The ice atop Mount Everest took roughly 2,000 years to form and about 25 years to melt, according to a new study, which suggests that even one of the highest glaciers on the planet is retreating as a result of climate change. Researchers traveled to the highest glacier on the world's tallest peak in 2019 in what became a record-setting expedition. They not only discovered the highest altitude microplastic on land at 8,440 meters above sea level, but retrieved the highest altitude ice core from the South Col Glacier at 8,020 meters and installed the two highest automatic weather stations, with the highest at the "Balcony" ridge at 8,430 meters. The "death zone" data shows that since the late 1990s, the South Col Glacier has retreated about 80 times faster than it formed, per CNN.
The snowpack went first, perhaps beginning in the 1950s, and with it the glacier's ability to reflect radiation from the sun. That dramatically sped up the melting, with the ice losing about 180 feet of thickness—or half of its mass—over the last 25 years, per CBS News and National Geographic. The ice at the surface of the core was found to be roughly 2,000 years old. "We have the evidence that even the highest glacier on the highest mountain in the world is rapidly losing its ice," Paul Mayewski, director of the Climate Change Institute at the University of Maine and lead author of the study published in Nature Portfolio Journal Climate and Atmospheric Science, tells NatGeo. "It's a real wake-up call."
He adds "it’s a complete change from what has been experienced in that area, throughout probably all of the period of occupation by humans in the mountains," per CNN. And "climate predictions for the Himalayas suggest continued warming and continued glacier mass loss," says U of Maine glaciochemist Mariusz Potocki, who collected the ice core, per CBS. Indeed, as NatGeo reports, the entire South Col Glacier could disappear by the middle of this century, threatening those communities that rely on it for drinking water and irrigation. "Polar bears have been the iconic symbol for warming of the Arctic and the loss of sea ice," says Mayewski. "We're hoping that what's happened high up on Everest will be another iconic call and demonstration." (The scale is global.)