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Climate Change Could Melt Everest Region's Glaciers

Mount Everest and the surrounding peaks could lose nearly all their glaciers by 2100. Continue reading →

The Dudh Koshi basin spans 1 million acres and includes some of world's tallest peaks including Mount Everest. Glaciers tumble down from the highest reaches to the valleys below, shaping the landscape and culture of the region.

But climate change has the region primed for a major meltdown. A new study published in The Cryosphere shows that by 2100, the jagged tongues of ice that define the region could shrink by 70 percent or greater as the region warms.

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Perhaps the most iconic feature of all, Mount Everest, may already be feeling some of the effects of warming. Last year, a huge slab of ice broke off the world's tallest peak and came crashing across a popular climbing route, killing 16 climbers. Some have pointed to it as a sign of things to come as ice destabilizes in the region.

For all the importance of glaciers, very little data is available on them because of the harsh conditions and challenges of collecting it. But the Everest region is an exception thanks to its exceptional status. Joseph Shea, a research scientist at the International Center for Integrated Mountain Development who led the new study, said that status made it a prime region to model the intricacies of future glacier changes.

Glaciers depend on snow and cold temperatures to maintain their balance. In Nepal, the majority of the former arrives during the monsoon season, which accounts for 77 percent of all precipitation in the region. Understanding how climate change will affect the monsoon is still an area of active research. Some signs indicate total precipitation has decreased even while more of it is falling on fewer days.

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"In this basin, it's not that different from other places," he said. "It's pretty simple physics to warm temperatures and get more ice melt."

The rise in temperatures would raise the freezing line on the mountain, exposing more ice to melt and reducing the area where nourishing snow falls. Estimates from the study indicate that the freezing line could lift by as much as 3,900 feet by 2100, which could expose the majority of glaciers in the region to temperatures above 32°F in warm-weather months.

No snow coming in and more ice melting out is a recipe for disappearing glaciers. In the Dudh Koshi basin, estimates based on past data and modeling indicate that the region has seen a 15.6 percent loss in ice volume and 20 percent in ice area since 1961. Those losses are expected to continue into the future. Low-end estimates indicate that glaciers could lose up to 70 percent of their volume while on the high end, the loss would be 99 percent, with glaciers essentially disappearing from the region.

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Shea cautioned against focusing too closely on specific numbers as this is a first attempt to model the region and there are still a numbers of uncertainties.

"I want to caution that this is a tool," he said. "But what we see is glaciers are really sensitive to temperature changes."

Researchers recently found similar results in western Canada. And a preview of mountain ice's great disappearing act is on display in Glacier National Park in Montana, where only 25 glaciers remain out of an estimated 150 that were present in 1850.

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The world's 14 "eight-thousanders" -- mountains taller than 8,000 meters (26,247 feet) -- are all located in Asia. On one hand, they really beautify a horizon, but on the other they present a fierce, at times fatal, challenge to mountain climbers. Beauty can, indeed, be deadly. Here's the "baby" of the bunch, Shishapangma in Tibet, peaking at 8,027 meters (26,335 feet).

This is Gasherbrum II (we'll have another Gasherbrum coming up shortly), on the border of Pakistan and China. It's 8,035 meters up in the sky (26,361 feet) and is sometimes known as K4. These mountaineers are near the summit.

On the left side of this picture we see the sheer mass of Broad Peak, the 12th highest mountain on the planet at 8,047 meters or 26,394 feet above sea level.

As promised, here's another Gasherbrum: Gasherbrum I. (Gasherbrum, translated from the Tibetan language Balti, means "beautiful mountain.") It also goes by the name of K5, lives along the China-Pakistan border and is 8,080 meters (26,444 ft) high.

The Himalayan mountain range Annapurna, in Nepal, is seen here from Pkhara, about 124 miles (200 kilometers) west of Kathmandu. Annapurna is considered one of the most dangerous for climbers; first crested in 1950, it has since been climbed by more than 100 people but taken 53 lives along the way.

This somewhat unsettling photo was taken in 1931 by mountaineers at a base camp on Pakistan's Nanga Parbat, the ninth-tallest eight-thousander at 8,126 meters (26,660 feet). The area captured in the picture is known as the Nanga Wall.

Eighth-tallest of the eight-thousanders is Nepal's Manaslu, at 8,163 meters (26,781 feet).

The Dhaulagiri mountain range in the Himalayas sports a rather volcanic look in this picture, with the sun brushing its top. But Nepal's 8,167-meter (26,795-foot) monster is of course quite chilly on top. Dhaulagiri's south face is considered by mountaineers to be a next-to-impossible climb, and no one has ever topped the mountain from that side.

Clouds hover over snow-covered Cho Oyu mountain in Tibet. The sixth-tallest mountain stands 8,201 meters tall (26,906 feet), and the "Mountain Goddess" (in Tibetan translation) is considered one of less-challenging climbs among the eight-thousanders (if you don't consider climbing ANY mountain a challenge, that is!).

Next in the eight-thousander club is Makalu, the fifth-highest mountain in the world, looming on the border between Nepal and China. It's 8,463 meters (27,766 feet) tall and is another tough climb, with 22 deaths tallied against its 206 successful climbs.

Standing 8,516 meters tall (27,940 feet), Lhotse, fourth-tallest, rests on the border of Nepal and Tibet. It was first climbed in 1956.

Kangchenjunga, in Nepal, is the world's third-tallest mountain, edging Lhotse by just 71 meters, standing 8,587 meters tall (28,169 feet). It's a prominent mark on the horizon in Darjeeling, the tea-growing region.

K2, the second-tallest mountain on the planet, is 8,611 meters up in the clouds (28,251 feet) along the China-Pakistan border. Climbers know it for its incredibly difficult ascent routes; in 2008, an ice fall on the treacherous slopes took the lives of 11 climbers.

And now we reach the Big Daddy in the worldwide mountains club. That, of course, would be Mount Everest. Its name alone is synonymous with challenging feats, as climbing it continues to this day to be a dicey endeavor, though it draws people year after year to attempt the ascent. And what a climb: Mount Everest stands 8,848 meters tall (29,029 feet). It was famously crested for the first time in 1953 by New Zealand climber Edmund Hillary and Nepalese Sherpa mountaineer Tenzing Norgay.