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RESEARCHER IN THE SPOTLIGHT
For this issue of ‘Researcher in the spotlight’, we speak with Arbindra Khadka, who successfully ascended Everest in early May 2022. He and a team of scientists installed an automatic weather station (AWS) at Bishop’s Rock (8,810 masl), close to the summit.
For this issue of ‘Researcher in the spotlight’, we speak with Arbindra Khadka, who successfully ascended Everest in early May 2022. He and a team of scientists installed an automatic weather station (AWS) at Bishop’s Rock (8,810 masl), close to the summit. The expedition – supported by highly skilled mountain guides – was part of the National Geographic #returntoeverest expedition, following the 2019 Perpetual Planet Everest Expedition which installed an AWS at the South Col (7,945 masl).
Arbindra Khadka is a PhD scholar at the French National Research Institute for Sustainable Development (IRD). He divides his time between France and Nepal as a visiting PhD scholar at ICIMOD and was formally employed at ICIMOD as a Cryosphere Analyst. His PhD is on glacier mass balance and its sensitivity to different meteorological variables, focusing on Mera Glacier, where he has worked extensively.
Can you tell us briefly about the AWS installed close to the summit of Everest?
We installed that AWS in the early hours of 9 May 2022. At 8,810 masl, it is the highest weather station and is located on the south side of Everest.
It took three hours for a team of 15 people, including our mountain guides and porters, to install the station while battling extreme weather conditions. Later in the evening, on the same day, we replaced the station at the South Col, which was installed during the 2019 expedition.
This work is an outcome of a collaboration among National Geographic Society; Rolex; and Nepal’s Central Department of Hydrology Meteorology, Tribhuvan University, and Department of Hydrology and Meteorology.
What does installing an AWS at such a high elevation involve? What kind of data does it collect? How long do you think the station will function?
We were working within the tropopause! Working at such a high elevation where normal breathing itself can be difficult requires both mental commitment and physical strength. However, science is always exciting, and the work we undertook to collect data through the AWS was something that had never been done before.
The weather stations collect near real-time data on air temperature, relative humidity, wind speed, pressure, and radiations, which are then transmitted to the NatGeo website by satellite. These data are useful for both mountaineering and research communities.
Currently, the Bishop Rock AWS is down, possibly because the battery has drained. However, the South Col AWS is operational, and with maintenance, I expect this will continue functioning for many years.
Why is it necessary to get data from such a high altitude? Wouldn’t AWSs installed at lower elevations provide similar information/data, in addition to being much easier to install and maintain?
There are no ground-based data to understand what is happening in the tropopause because most of the surface of the earth is much lower than the tropopause. The characteristics of the atmosphere differ with altitude; data from lower elevations cannot predict conditions in higher elevations.
Having such data from the world’s highest peak will help us better understand the weather around Everest over 8,000 masl, and the impact of climate change on high-altitude regions. Such data will also contribute to improving climbing safety and saving lives. The increased mortality rate above 8,000 masl is mainly due to the extreme and unpredictable weather.
How will the data collected inform research and help improve understanding of changes happening in the Everest region?
To understand the gravity of what is going on at these elevations, we need data from the same elevations. This helps us accurately forecast the fate of water resources. Research papers based on the data from the South Col station showed the rapid thinning of ice even at the highest glacier in the world, where the temperature is always freezing. We need to increase our efforts to understand what is happening to glaciers in the Himalaya, including the almost inaccessible ones such as on the Everest summit.
What was your motivation to join this scientific team and to summit Everest?
Glaciologists around the world study glacial behaviour to help policymakers and decision-makers manage and protect water resources. I was thrilled to be able to accompany the National Geographic team as they embarked on their second leg of the ambitious quest to install an AWS at the world’s highest peak. There are no classrooms like the summit of Everest and this opportunity to learn from scientists Baker Perry and Tom Mathews, who are the best in the field, will not come by every day.
What changes in the cryosphere did you observe as you made your way up to the summit from base camp?
It was an honour to be one of the few researchers from Nepal to reach the Everest summit – not as an adventurer but to do scientific work. As a cryosphere researcher, I could not help but be shocked by the visible impacts of climate change even at 6,500 masl. Our glaciers are melting rapidly, and this saddens and worries me. Seasoned climbers share that glacier melt at 6,500 masl and higher have been visible for quite some time.
How has this expedition raised your ambitions for your future research and career?
This was an invaluable experience; I am among few researchers from Nepal or from the region to successfully ascend Everest for scientific work. This experience has motivated me to continue my research on high-altitude science and cover different glaciers in the future. I find it inspiring to see how the outcomes of our hard work influence policy and change the lives of communities for better. I hope to continue spreading the plight of climate change in Nepal and the region to the international community though my work.