At 8,430 meters above sea level, members of the National Geographic and Rolex Perpetual Planet Everest Expedition team celebrate after setting up the world's highest operating automatic weather station. Credit: Mark Fisher / National Geographic Society

The highest glacier on Mount Everest is melting, and is now losing several decades’ worth of ice accumulation each year. The glacier’s rapid melt could endanger a water supply that 1 billion people depend on, and lead to more frequent avalanches on the world’s tallest mountain.

A team led by researchers from the University of Maine on Thursday published research showing that climate change is behind the accelerating melting. The research team published its findings in the journal Climate and Atmospheric Science.

The six UMaine climate scientists behind the research include Paul Mayewski, director of the university’s Climate Change Institute, who led an international research team on a 2019 expedition up Mount Everest sponsored by National Geographic and Rolex.

“It answers one of the big questions posed by our 2019 NGS/Rolex Mount Everest Expedition — whether the highest glaciers on the planet are impacted by human-sourced climate change. The answer is a resounding yes, and very significantly since the late 1990s,” Mayewski said. 

During the expedition, the team installed weather stations on Everest and sampled the ice core.

The group set two records in the process, installing weather stations at the highest elevations — 27,657.48 feet and 26,066.273 feet above sea level — and collecting an ice core sample from the highest elevation ever, 26,312.336 feet. 

Mount Everest’s elevation is 29,032 feet.

In addition to finding that the glacier’s accelerating melting could endanger a major water supply and lead to more avalanches on Mount Everest, the research team found that expeditions up the mountain could become more treacherous, as climbers have to trek up more exposed bedrock.

The rate at which the glacier is melting is faster than the rate at which it froze in the first place, according to the study. 

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Sawyer Loftus

Sawyer Loftus is a reporter covering Old Town, Orono and the surrounding areas. A recent graduate of the University of Vermont, Sawyer grew up in Vermont where he's worked for Vermont Public Radio, The...