National Geographic Documents UMaine Scientist's Grueling Mount Everest Expedition

Jun 30, 2020

To better understand the forces and effects of climate change, National Geographic funded a mission last year to Mount Everest. The expedition was documented in a special called "Expedition Everest," which will air Tuesday night on the National Geographic Channel. The lead scientist on the expedition was the University of Maine's Paul Mayewski, who heads UMaine's Climate Change Institute.

Mayewski talked with Maine Public's Morning Edition host Irwin Gratz about the expedition.

Gratz: Good morning, sir.

Mayewski: Good morning.

All right. So first of all, why Everest? What were you hoping to learn from there?

The National Geographic and Rolex expedition went to Everest for several reasons. Number one, it's iconic. And we know very little about the very high regions of the earth, those areas. These are places where a tremendous amount of water is stored that's required for hydroelectric and agriculture, depending on the mountain region that you're close to. This is the upper level of the atmosphere that we live in, and in order to understand better how that portion of the atmosphere is responding to recent climate change, we need much more information. So we put up automatic weather stations, collected the highest ice core ever, which would allow us to go back through time; collected water and snow samples, looked at biological material to see what the extent of the biology is up to those elevations; conducted extremely detailed mapping surveys to provide a baseline for future change.

Let's start with that weather station up at 26,000 feet. Why would the conditions there, which would be virtually inhospitable to most life anyway, better inform climate change and what's going to matter down here?

There is, literally, no information from these high elevation regions. Yes, we can get information from aircraft, from satellites, from balloons, but there's nothing - there's no other situation - in which there is actually a station sitting up at that elevation. We can improve our understanding of these high elevation regions, and in the process further perfect the climate models that are being used, not just for understanding what's going to happen in the next few days - the weather models - but also for predicting climate things that will happen in the next few years, and many decades.
What, if anything, have you been able to learn from it so far?

The models which predict what happens at this elevation tend to be pretty decent. It's absolutely critical that we find "ground truthing" for these models. And we're learning more about the winds at those elevations - they're almost up in the jet stream. We're learning more about the fact that there's so much more radiation, and that despite the very cold temperatures on the top of Everest, you can still have melting. And this is important in terms of understanding how fast the glaciers on Mount Everest and throughout the Himalayas are melting, and why, in fact, these glaciers are getting smaller, as they have been for the last 20 to 30 years.

Needless to say, you were working in a rather extreme environment - base camp, I believe, was set up around 17,000 feet and you were working, in a lot of cases, above there. What were some of the most challenging conditions your expedition ran into?

Our summit team, obviously, ran into the most serious conditions - winds that are easily on the order of 40 or 50 miles per hour. There are crevasses - slots that people can fall through in the ice. And then, of course, the most serious thing that people face at these elevations is the fact that even at base camp we have about 50% of the oxygen at sea level, and by the time you get close to the top of Mount Everest, you're closer to about 35% of the oxygen at sea level. So just imagine walking around with a plastic bag on your head, and not only trying to climb up, but also trying to think about what sort of science you're doing, where you should do it, and doing some rather finicky science - the construction of automatic weather stations, the recovery of an ice core. People are strained as a consequence of climbing because of potential winds, cold;  and of course you're on a steep slope, so the potential for falling.
A lot of folks, of course, would consider this very adventurous. And I guess I'm also curious as to whether or not when you first got into science, whether you actually thought you would be working in conditions like this and perhaps embarking on such adventures?

To be truthful, one of the reasons that I went into science was because I wanted to go to remote parts of the world. As I started to work in these places, I realized that the potential for scientific discovery is very high, simply by the fact that going to a place that either nobody has ever been before, or going to a place which very few people go to and it's very hard to get to, improves your chances of finding new things, and being able to add significantly to scientific understanding - in this particular case, to climate science.

Paul Mayewski, director of the Climate Change Institute at the University of Maine, was the lead scientist on an expedition to Mount Everest, and you can see some of the work on a National Geographic special, "Expedition Everest." It airs Tuesday night at 10 p.m. ET on the National Geographic Channel. Well, thanks very much.

Thank you, Irwin.

This interview was lightly edited for clarity.