Better climber safety is forecast on Everest
New weather stations will help those trying to summit the Himalayan peak, says Dan Stretch
Climbing Mt Everest is dangerous. At 29,029 feet (8,848 metres), it’s the tallest peak on Earth. The peak penetrates the stratosphere where temperatures can dip to minus 76 degrees Fahrenheit (-60 C) with wind gusts up to 175 miles per hour. But if the weather cooperates on the summit during climbing season in May then the temperatures can warm up to minus 4 degrees (-20 C) with winds between 15-25 miles per hour – similar to a brisk winter morning in Edinburgh.
The weather window to summit Mt Everest varies, some years it’s just a few days and other times it’s nearly two weeks. Forecasting summit weather conditions is tricky, if not outright speculative.
Jet stream patterns, atmospheric pressure changes, precipitation levels, cloud accumulations, and humidity readings each contribute essential ingredients for meteorologists, climbers, guides, and support teams to analyse. Their calculations determine when to stay put and rest, and when to begin a final push up the mountain to reach the summit, and safely return.
Up until late last year, the nearest weather station to the Everest summit was at Lobuche at an elevation of 16,663 feet. Today, there are four new stations at higher elevations. One at Pumori Bench (elevation 17,437 feet); another near Base Camp 2 (elevation 21,207 feet); a third at South Col on the Lhotse Face (elevation 26,066 feet); and the highest weather station in the world on the Balcony (elevation 27,657 feet).
National Geographic Society led the effort to send scientists to plant the weather stations on Mt Everest to evaluate weather in the death zone, the altitude above 26,000 feet where oxygen levels are “insufficient to sustain human life”. Will the new weather stations mean increased safety for climbers? Probably. According to a report in Science Magazine, a five-day forecast today is as accurate as a one-day forecast 40 years ago. The new weather stations will likely help improve and quicken forecast accuracy that may identify potentially life-threatening weather changes.
According to Alan Arnette, a keen mountaineer who reached the Everest peak in 2011, “the [new] stations will help provide a better picture but by no means substitute quality, human-created forecasts.” Any improvement would be welcome if only to avoid incidents like the one in 1996 when a sudden, deadly blizzard on Mt Everest claimed eight climbers’ lives.
Mt Everest passes through the largely mysterious sub-tropical jet stream – a slim, erratic band of powerful air currents encompassing the world several miles above sea level, manipulating storm tracks, agriculture growing seasons, and much more. The new weather stations measure temperature, wind speed, atmospheric pressure, and humidity in the stratosphere providing climate scientists a new tool to gather data about it. ■
Dan Stretch is a Global Rescue Operations Manager and is based in Nepal during the Mt Everest climbing seasons. He has a BSC in Paramedic Science and has coordinated hundreds of evacuations and crisis response operations.
View of Everest, above; climbers heading for the summit, inset