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19 Jul 2019 6:00
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  •   Home > News > Environment

    Himalayas environment change 'mind-boggling', leading scientist says

    Mountaineer and climate scientist John All was in the Himalayas for the recent climbing season and says change happening to the environment there is "mind-boggling".


    John All is not your ordinary scientist.

    As he puts it: "Most scientists are not mountaineers and most mountaineers are not scientists."

    Dr All and his team scale the highest peaks on Earth to survey the environment there.

    In fact, his team now has the record, at 8,500 metres, for the highest point a snow sample has ever been collected.

    He has just returned from his latest expedition to the Himalayas and said there was a "mind-boggling magnitude of change" compared to the last time he gathered similar data there 10 years ago.

    "The glaciers on Mount Everest are melting so much more quickly than we expected," Dr All told The World, pointing out that in some Himalayan areas he visited the temperature "was 20 degrees Fahrenheit warmer".

    "Mount Everest and that region of the Himalayas provide water for 2 billion people, and when you're talking about disappearance of the water supply for big chunks of India and China, that makes a big difference around the world."

    Dr All's team is looking at how climate change and pollution are affecting vegetation, the resources of local people and glaciers.

    "Just like a white T-shirt is not as hot in the summer in the sun as my black T-shirt, the same is going to be true of glaciers," he said.

    "As they get covered with more and more pollution, they get darker and darker and melt more quickly."

    He said high up in the mountains huge amounts of vegetation had been wiped out and the world needed to start preparing for glaciers below 6,000 metres to no longer exist.

    Everest queues a blessing in disguise

    Dr All, who is the director of the Mountain Environments Research Institute at Western Washington University, said research from these far-flung destinations provided unique insights.

    "The mountains are most vulnerable to climate change, more so than a lot of lowland areas. And there's been almost no research conducted in these areas because it is so difficult to access."

    And that difficulty has been highlighted more than once for Dr All and his team.

    Some of his colleagues had to be airlifted off Mount Everest on the most recent mission after falling ill.

    But he said in some senses it was a blessing in disguise after seeing the images that emerged of queues of people trying to reach the summit this climbing season.

    "It was just too dangerous to try and stop and collect samples when there's so many people trying to climb the mountain," he said.

    Stuck 20m down a crevasse with 15 broken bones

    But the scariest moments came during a "double accident" in 2014.

    "We were on Mount Everest and an avalanche hit our team and a bunch of other teams and killed 16 Sherpas including part of our team," Dr All said.

    The ordeal wasn't to end there.

    Dr All moved onto another peak while Everest was closed and, in a story of survival ripe for a Hollywood thriller, plunged more than 20 metres down a crevasse while alone high in the mountains.

    "I had broken my arm, and shoulder and six of my vertebra," he said, which when all counted ended up in 15 broken bones.

    For hours, Dr All willed himself on inch by inch with the use of just one arm and an ice axe up the vertical ice walls towards the speck of blue sky above.

    What's more, fearing he may not make it, the scientist in him had kicked in and he ensured the whole experience was documented on camera.

    "I wanted to give my family, especially my mum, a sense of what I was going through to get out of there," he said.

    "I methodically went through my options, examined what I could do and knew if I wanted to survive I had to keep moving.

    "The camera helped me do that, helped me talk through with myself, helped me calm down and focus on the task at hand."

    He eventually made it back to the surface, where it took another couple of hours to crawl back to his tent and the saviour of a satellite phone. By the next day, he was in a Kathmandu hospital.

    Despite the torment, Dr All's ambition hasn't been dampened.

    The "Indiana Jones of climate science", as he's been dubbed in some quarters due to his wild adventures and physical appearance, is off to the Andes ranges in South America next to collect more samples.

    "By comparing across the world, it gives us a much better sense of what climate change is going to look like in the future."

    © 2019 ABC Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved


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