It is sorely tempting to blame climate change for the 16 deaths April 18 on Everest – all of them Sherpa guides and other employees out doing their prepwork for mostly-foreign adventurers aiming to stand on the mountain top. A few news outlets are doing so, some of them packaging the assertion in very good stories. They will get away with it – it's a close call. A closer look only underscores the difficulty scientists or writers or anybody else has in sensibly holding up one specific event as an unambiguous result of global warming. It seems to be a curse of our time that common journalistic habits and story telling tactics are, unfortunately, barriers to effective yet simultaneously true reporting on climate change. It surely happens, but is not easy.
A problem is that unless an event lies outside the envelope of things easily expected without a higher average global temperature, it can only be one otherwise ambiguous data point in a fuzzy, statistical argument. To be sure, some things are explicitly attributable. Sea level rise, the worldwide tendency of mountain glaciers to be in retreat, the changing pH of sea water, all are genuine results of climate change. But a drought, flood, ice fall, or vanished species by itself? That is a tough sell.
Here's one of the best I've read so far, subtly flawed due to the above reasons as it may be. A roundup of other stories follows further below :
- The Atlantic – Svati Kirsten Narula: The Year Climate Change Closed Everest ; A story far more nuanced than the literal meaning of this powerful headline. One knows right-off that the author, an editorial fellow for The Atlantic site, could be a science writer if she so decides. The lede: "The deadly avalanche on Everest earlier this month wasn't technically an avalanche. It was an "ice release" – a collapse of a glacial mass known as a serac. Rather than getting swept up by a rush of powdery snow across a slope, the victims fell under the blunt force of house-sized ice blocks…."
That bit of technical examination and definition of terminology shows a yen for precision. That is a portent of success in our trade. The observation holds even though, one strongly suspects, the tumbling ice was a type of avalanche. One can have many sorts – rock falls, snow collapses, and ice falls for a few. Probably coffee bean avalanches can kill if one is too close to the latest delivery to the Maxwell House cannery's warehouse. Most important, Narula starts her story off with a tight description of what happened in geomorphological terms. It sets the piece apart and, in the opinion of yours truly, on a higher plane.
Narula furthermore backs up the climate change angle by quoting from a geographer and university professor. He said in an email to her that "I am at Everest Basecamp right now and things are dire because of climate change. the ice is melting at unprecedented rates and [that] greatly increases the risk to climbers…. You could say [that] climate change closed Mt. Everest this year."
To get picky on another point, regional climate change could have done that. Global trends are not required. Second, the event is not new to the site. The 'ice release' occurred along a narrow chute through which ice moves constantly, a long-standing river of ice one has to suppose is a glacier even though on maps it is called the Khumu Icefall. The steep rocky sides of the chute hold their own accumulation of ice. The one that descended upon the Sherpa party has splintered before. So, it almost surely has happened, at various scales, for many millennia running. To get even fussier about word meaning, these days just about zero weather related events would have occurred at the same day, place, and with the same rain drops or wind gusts without global warming. Just a short-term nudge by rising temperatures in recent decades would have shuffled things enough to spawn a distinct parade of gyres, fronts, ridges, troughs, and cyclones for everafter. There is no fixed schedule made out long ago specifying what weather we should be having, but with an occasional "global warming" episode squeezed in. The whole shebang is special for our times. The pertinent question is how statistically distinct is the weather parade from what we'd have had with no fossil fuel combustion?
Regardless of this poke through the literal meanings of terms Narula put her story together well. Everest is surely into a new climate regime, one that presumably makes it more unstable and dangerous to climb. This one ice-melt-connected event is as good a peg as any for hanging its perils upon. The story has many other useful asides and data on warming's impacts on the area. The famed base camp, for instance, is 40 feet lower than it was historically. The glacier upon which it rests is retreating and slowly thinning. Readers get some info on the region's warming (half a degree F per decade for the last 30+ years), and a comparison with immense changes near the Earth's other regions thick with ice caps and glaciers, the Arctic and Antarctic. Glaciers throughout Himalaya are falling back, Narula reports, a sign of great changes to come in the foothills and flatlands far below including altered river flow and possible killer floods as glacially-dammed lakes break through.
The association between global warming and the Everest tragedy comes up commonly in news coverage.
- Aljazeera America – Renee Lewis: Climate Change Played Role in Everest Avalanche, Scientists Say; Says here (as with polar regions) that the Himalayas are warming faster than the earth as a whole. The story specifies that no one event can be pinned on climate change, but that experts expect warming to make places like Everest less stable, more prone to avalanches and storms.
- Live Science – Marc Lallanilla: Mt. Everest Avalanche: Is climate change to Blame? ; A good job knitting together sources available on the web shortly after the disaster occurred, all credited far as I can tell. These include the LA Times and Discovery News – which I've unbundled for the following two bullets. the story was enough to trigger, on a contrarian site popular with people who hate Al Gore, a string of disgusted or mirthful remarks.
- LA Times – Geoffrey Mohan: Climate change may be baring Mt. Everest ; A remarkably timely story, written a few days before the fatal accident. Mohan's story is general – it does not address the safety of mountaineers.
- Discovery News – Climate Change May Make Mount Everest Unclimbable: This written more than two years ago. It identified the primary increased danger as rock slides, not ice collapses. (Rocks don't usually slide of course, so it should have called them avalanches or falls).
- Moyers & Company – Michael Winship: Are the Mt. Everest Avalanche Deaths More Proof of Climate Change? ; Ahh, another one that leans heavily on sombody else's reporting, hence the next bullet.
- AP – Katy Daigle: Climate Change Likely to Make Everest Even Riskier ; Says the standard disclaimer- no fair pinning any specific event on climate change. Her sources include a hydrologist at the Univ. of Arizona who says warming "doesn't mean it's getting worse, it just means you don't know." She also quotes a retired Sherpa guide, now living in the US, as saying he was seeing things changing for the worse, due to warming, for years before his last trek to the top.
- Himalayan Times – Rajan Pokhrel: Climate change hitting Everest region; The local view from Kathmandu with multiple anecdotal observations from Sherpas and other residents. Rather convincing, too.