4 Reasons Why Climbing Everest Is Deadlier Than Ever

On April 25, 2015, rescuers use a makeshift stretcher to carry an injured person after an avalanche triggered by an earthquake flattened parts of Everest Base Camp. Victims were airlifted out. Image credit: Roberto Schmidt/AFP/Getty Images

On April 18, 2014, an avalanche killed 16 Nepalese guides on Mount Everest, making it the deadliest day in the mountain’s history. One year later, a 7.8-magnitude earthquake triggered another fatal avalanche that killed more than 20 climbers and shut the mountain down for the season. Unfortunately, this year is following the trend. During this year's climbing season, six people died while attempting to summit Everest.

At 29,029 feet, Everest is known for its dangers; that's part of the allure. But in recent years, tragedies have spiked, and frozen bodies scattered across the mountain are an eerie reminder of the growing hazards. 

So why is the world’s tallest mountain claiming more lives than ever before?

1. CLIMATE CHANGE MAKES EVEREST UNPREDICTABLE.

Everest tragedies are nothing new; since 1990, at least one climber has died in pursuit of the summit every year. But each climbing season, Everest is getting more unstable. According to Kent Clement, a professor of outdoor studies at Colorado Mountain College, climate change is possibly the most imminent risk for climbers.

“Recently, we haven’t seen many health-related deaths—the majority of Everest fatalities are linked to avalanches and earthquakes,” Clement said. “As temperatures rise, Everest’s thousands of feet of ice and water are becoming unstable, making the mountain even more volatile.”

Collapsing seracs—50- to 100-foot columns of ice formed by intersecting glacier crevasses—are a growing threat.

Seracs can stand perfectly still for decades, then spontaneously fall over, killing those nearby and, in some cases, triggering avalanches further down the mountain. Case in point: The deadly 2014 avalanche that killed 16 sherpas was caused by a serac collapse.

As you’d expect, climate-related risks are the new norm. A study in The Cryosphere [PDF] journal predicts that Mount Everest’s glaciers could shrink by 70 percent this century.

2. BASIC HUMAN BIOLOGY IS AT ODDS WITH HIGH ALTITUDES.

While climate change and corresponding natural disasters may be the leading cause of casualties, Everest climbers still face a number of dangerous health risks.

In high-altitude settings, oxygen doesn’t diffuse into a climber’s blood as well as it would at sea level, which can lead to serious medical problems, including pulmonary edema, in which fluid from the blood vessels going into the lung tissue leaks into air spaces, causing a climber to drown in their own fluids; and high-altitude cerebral edema (HACE), in which fluid from blood vessels in the brain leaks out, causing intracranial pressure, headaches, neurologic dysfunction, brainstem herniation, coma, and eventually death if not treated (and in some cases, even when treated).

In terms of Everest health risks, both of these issues are particularly dangerous because they can happen to anyone during high-altitude ascents—even the most experienced climbers.

“Altitude illness impacts people in different ways, and we don’t really know who is susceptible until they have altitude illness,” Christopher Van Tilburg, the medical director of occupational and travel medicine at Oregon's Providence Hood River Memorial Hospital, told mental_floss. One of Van Tilburg's specialities is mountain emergency medicine. “High-altitude pulmonary edemas can hit people suddenly—even highly trained, fit mountaineers.” 

3. BOTH NEUROLOGICAL AND PSYCHOLOGICAL FACTORS CAN IMPAIR JUDGMENT.

Another health risk that affects a climber’s cognition is hypoxia, which is simply when the brain doesn’t get enough oxygen. According to Clement, hypoxia can drastically impair judgment, making it one of the most dangerous Everest risks of all.

“The higher you climb, the more your judgment gets impaired,” Clement said. “It’s amazing how hard it is for smart people to do simple math and memory problems at high altitudes.”

In addition to treacherous missteps, hypoxia can drive climbers to push harder and go further than they normally would—but not in a good way. These “cognitive traps” often happen when a person invests significant time or money into something, such as climbing Everest. As a climber gets closer to the top, they replace logic and safety with stubborn determination, and will put everything at risk to reach the summit.

According to Clement, the cure for cognitive traps is setting a strict turnaround time: an ironclad moment when a climber promises to turn around and forego the summit to save their life. Turnaround times are decided before setting foot on Everest, and should be agreed upon between climbers and their guides.

Unfortunately, these guide-and-climber turnaround promises aren’t always upheld.

“Every time you ignore your turnaround time, you’re putting yourself at risk,” Clement said. “Professional guides are also supposed to follow these rules, but they get stuck in cognitive traps, too, because the more clients they get to the top, the more clients they’ll have next season.”

4. MODERN-DAY MEDICINE CAN REDUCE BUT NOT ELIMINATE RISKS.

Any climb above 19,000 feet—the altitude known as “the death zone”—will have associated health risks, but the climbing industry has made significant strides with medicine and safety gear. Medicines include Diamox, a diuretic that helps prevent a mild edema, and Decadron, a steroid used to treat a brain edema and reverse the symptoms of acute mountain sickness (but the only true fix for acute mountain sickness is descent).

While the climbing industry is constantly innovating, experienced mountaineers know that new medicines and inventions will never be a match for treacherous Mount Everest.

“Training doesn’t really offset objective hazards like rock falls, ice falls, avalanches, and earthquakes,” said Van Tilburg. “And while we have medicine for altitude illness to help people acclimatize, we don’t have medicines for the myriad other risks on Everest.”

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An Eco-Friendly Startup Is Converting Banana Peels Into Fabric for Clothes
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A new startup has found a unique way to tackle pollution while simultaneously supporting sustainable fashion. Circular Systems, a “clean-tech new materials company,” is transforming banana byproducts, pineapple leaves, sugarcane bark, and flax and hemp stalk into natural fabrics, according to Fast Company.

These five crops alone meet more than twice the global demand for fibers, and the conversion process provides farmers with an additional revenue stream, according to the company’s website. Fashion brands like H&M and Levi’s are already in talks with Circular Systems to incorporate some of these sustainable fibers into their clothes.

Additionally, Circular Systems recycles used clothing to make new fibers, and another technology called Orbital spins those textile scraps and crop byproducts together to create a durable type of yarn.

People eat about 100 billion bananas per year globally, resulting in 270 million tons of discarded peels. (Americans alone consume 3.2 billion pounds of bananas annually.) Although peels are biodegradable, they emit methane—a greenhouse gas—during decomposition. Crop burning, on the other hand, is even worse because it causes significant air pollution.

As Fast Company points out, using leaves and bark to create clothing may seem pretty groundbreaking, but 97 percent of the fibers used in clothes in 1960 were natural. Today, that figure is only 35 percent.

However, Circular Systems has joined a growing number of fashion brands and textile companies that are seeking out sustainable alternatives. Gucci has started incorporating a biodegradable material into some of its sunglasses, Bolt Threads invented a material made from mushroom filaments, and pineapple “leather” has been around for a couple of years now.

[h/t Fast Company]

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Undersea Internet Cables Could Be Key to the Future of Earthquake Detection
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iStock

Considering that 70 percent of the planet is covered by oceans, we don't have all that many underwater earthquake sensors. Though there's plenty of seismic activity that happens out in the middle of the ocean, most detection equipment is located on land, with the exception of a few offshore sensor projects in Japan, the U.S., and Canada.

To get better earthquake data for tremors and quakes that happen far from existing sensors, a group of scientists in the UK, Italy, and Malta suggest turning to the internet. As Science News reports, the fiber-optic cables already laid down to carry communication between continents could be repurposed as seismic sensors with the help of lasers.

The new study, detailed in a recent issue of Science, proposes beaming a laser into one end of the optical fiber, then measuring how that light changes. When the cable is disturbed by seismic shaking, the light will change.

This method, which the researchers tested during earthquakes in Italy, New Zealand, Japan, and Mexico, would allow scientists to use data from multiple undersea cables to both detect and measure earthquake activity, including pinpointing the epicenter and estimating the magnitude. They were able to sense quakes in New Zealand and Japan from a land-based fiber-optic cable in England, and measure an earthquake in the Malta Sea from an undersea cable running between Malta and Sicily that was located more than 50 miles away from the epicenter.

A map of the world's undersea cable connections with a diagram of how lasers can measure their movement
Marra et al., Science (2018)

Seismic sensors installed on the sea floor are expensive, but they can save lives: During the deadly Japanese earthquake in 2011, the country's extensive early-warning system, including underwater sensors, was able to alert people in Tokyo of the quake 90 seconds before the shaking started.

Using existing cable links that run across the ocean floor would allow scientists to collect data on earthquakes that start in the middle of the ocean that are too weak to register on land-based seismic sensors. The fact that hundreds of thousands of miles of these cables already crisscross the globe makes this method far, far cheaper to implement than installing brand-new seismic sensors at the bottom of the ocean, giving scientists potential access to data on earthquake activity throughout the world, rather than only from the select places that already have offshore sensors installed.

The researchers haven't yet studied how the laser method works on the long fiber-optic cables that run between continents, so it's not ready for the big leagues yet. But eventually, it could help bolster tsunami detection, monitor earthquakes in remote areas like the Arctic, and more.

[h/t Science News]

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