Scientists announced on Thursday that they successfully installed five automated stations, including the highest weather station in world, on Mount Everest’s flank. At 27,658 feet (8,430 meters) above sea level, the station is set to record some of the harshest weather anywhere on Earth. And with a satellite connection, anyone can monitor the weather in Mount Everest’s so-called death zone—where there isn’t enough oxygen to sustain human life for long—in real time.
Beyond the novelty of real-time death zone data, the new weather station will also give scientists some of the first regular, direct observations of the jet stream. The data will also help track how climate change is affecting the Himalayas, where rising temperatures are melting out glaciers, something that could create huge problems for millions of people downslope.
The new weather stations are part of the National Geographic Society’s Perpetual Planet Extreme Expedition, what the group says is likely the largest scientific research trip to ever study the mountain. The two highest stations installed are now the two highest weather stations anywhere in the world. The one at 27,658 feet above sea level sits on a location known as the Balcony on the South Col route, the most popular route up the mountain, and is just a bit more than 1,000 feet below the summit. The previous highest weather station in the world also sat on Everest’s South Col, though it’s a bit lower in elevation than the two new ones.
Installing the highest weather station in the world required some serious considerations. The most obvious concerns are wind and cold. Tom Matthews, one of the expedition researchers and a climate scientist at Loughborough University, told Earther that the station is rated to withstand winds of roughly 225 mph and temperatures as low as minus-58 degrees Fahrenheit (minus-50 degrees Celsius). Matthews and Baker Perry, another expedition scientist from Appalachian State University, took part in test installations at lower elevations on Everest as well as New Hampshire’s Mount Washington, home to some pretty extreme weather itself.
The highest station’s location in the death zone, an area above 26,247 feet (8,000 meters), made installing it an actual life or death event. The researchers were fortunate to work with a team of sherpas who, having grown up at high elevations, were much better acclimated to the conditions and were able to schlepp the components up and handle most of the installation. The team planned to drill into the mountain’s firm rock to tether the weather station in place. Each component of the station was also built so they could be easily and quickly installed without anyone having to take off gloves and risk frostbite or spend unnecessary time in the death zone.
Even with the best laid plans, things still went awry though. For starters, it was so cold that the batteries for drilling the station in place were dead upon arrival. The team resorted to stuffing the batteries in armpits, crotches, and other body parts to try and coax them back to life.
“It was an anti-climatic moment just standing there for 45 minutes,” Baker said.
Partway through the installation, they also realized they were missing some of the mounts for the wind sensors, which had been left at camp in the chaos. But they had what they called a “MacGuyver moment” to salvage the sensors.
“We had a shovel with us that had an adjustable handle and we looked at the handle and said ‘gosh, we could use this,’” Perry said. The shovel’s handle ended up being a perfect fit to mount the sensor and its blue hue stands out in the photo of the expedition team celebrating the installation above.
The team also installed a station at South Col at 26,066 (7,945 meters). Together, these two ultra-high weather stations record data on temperature, relative humidity, barometric pressure, wind speed, and wind direction, which anyone can view in real time. But beyond making your local weather seem boring, the stations are also set up to provide an unprecedented view of high altitude weather for scientists. Having such a high level view could help improve day-to-day forecasts in the region and quite possibly around the globe.
“If we get a full year’s data, in terms of what we can do for weather forecasting would be really fantastic,” Matthews said.
And the longer the record stretches, the more scientists will be able to monitor how climate change is impacting the highest reaches of the planet. On Everest itself, rising temperatures are wreaking all sorts of havoc. They’re making certain areas like the Khumbu Icefall more dangerous to climb, not to mention exposing the bodies of climbers who died attempting to summit the mountain as ice recedes.
More broadly, the Himalayas are also in bad shape due to rising temperatures. Research published earlier this year suggests that two-thirds of the ice in the Himalayas and surrounding mountain ranges could disappear if carbon emissions continue to ramp up. If they’re cut to keep global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius of pre-industrial levels, the region could still lose a third of all glaciers in the coming decades, curtailing water resources for a quarter of a billion people who live downslope. Receding glaciers can also leave behind lakes that form behind the natural earthen dams glaciers create as they move down mountain. Those dams can eventual fail, though, leading to glacial lake outburst floods. These violent floods are a huge concern for communities in the valleys below.
The weather stations on top of the world won’t singlehandedly stop these impacts, of course, but they could allow scientists to back check weather and climate models to see how well they’re predicting our current climate. And that could in turn help researchers project what comes next.
This post has been updated to reflect that there are a quarter billion people living downslope, not a quarter million.