NIAS Fortnightly on Science, Technology and International Relations

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NIAS Fortnightly on Science, Technology and International Relations
Mount Everest: The international race for the world's highest weather station

  STIR Team

China has set up the world’s highest weather station on Mount Everest at the height of 8,848 metres. Following this, the National Geographic Society team with members from the UK, and the US, in collaboration with Nepal also set up a weather station at 8,830 metres. It highlights a new international scientific race for the highest weather station.

NIAS Fortnightly on 
Science, Technology and International Relations (STIR) 
Vol 1, No. 23, 31 May 2022.

Cover Story
By Akriti Sharma

Mount Everest: The international race for the world's highest weather station
On 19 May, according to the Himalayan Times, a team of researchers from the National Geographic Society installed a weather station at a height of 8,830 metres. According to Nepal's Department of Hydrology and Meteorology (DHM), the weather station was installed a few metres below the summit as the weather conditions were not favourable to fix equipment at the summit. The station powered by solar panels will measure meteorological phenomena like air temperature, wind speed and direction, air pressure, and change in the surface height of snow. The Nepali DHM and the National Geographic Society have signed an MoU to operate all five weather stations that are installed to get real-time data for monitoring. Under the MoU, the National Geographic Society will operate the weather stations till 2025 and then transfer the technology to the Nepalese government in 2026.

Chinese expedition
On 4 May, a Chinese expedition team installed the world’s highest automatic meteorological monitoring station at Mount Everest. The station is at a height of 8,848.86 meters. The expedition team included thirteen researchers from the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the Chinese Academy of Meteorological Sciences, and the Meteorological Bureau of Tibet Autonomous Region. The expedition was a part of the research project titled “Earth Summit Mission 2022” launched on April 28.  It is China's second scientific research survey on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau. On 4 May, a helicopter joined the expedition which carried a greenhouse gas concentration detector to help researchers receive real-time data and also transport supplies and personnel to aid the expedition. The equipment that needed to be carried to the top weighed 50 kg and was dismantled before reaching the mountain top.
The expedition was carried out by a group of twelve people. The team includes members of the Chinese Academy of Sciences' Institute of Tibetan Plateau Research; the Chinese Academy of Meteorological Sciences; and the Tibet Autonomous Region's Meteorological Bureau. The scientific crew conducted observation and sample missions after reaching the summit. The weather station is the first of its kind to use high-precision radar to measure the thickness of the ice. The weather station is powered by solar panels and is expected to sustain for two years in the harsh weather conditions on the highest peak of Earth. It is equipped with a satellite communication system for data transmission and the radio station is coded to transmit every 12 minutes. The station will obtain data from the surrounding area by filling the gap in meteorological data on the world’s highest peak.  The objective of the Earth summit mission 2022 is to generate meteorological data on Mount Everest which will help in the prediction and analysis of not only the Himalayas but also other mountain regions of the world. The data can be used to further investigate climate change patterns.

Previous weather station expeditions

On 18 December 2019, Dr. Tom Matthews and Dr. Baker Perry, members of the National Geographic Society in partnership with Tribhuvan University and the Government of Nepal funded by  Rolex made an expedition to Mount Everest and installed an automated weather station on the Southeast Ridge of Mount Everest at the height of 8,427.72 metres. The weather station was 49.89 kilograms and seven feet tall. Both Dr. Tom and Dr. Baker were accompanied by six sherpas. The expedition was a two-month process that had more than 30 scientists from different fields working together in the field of glaciology, geology, meteorology, cartography, biology, and climate science who worked on various aspects over a period of time.
The expedition was successful in installing the two highest weather stations in the world at the height of 8,430 meters and 7,945 meters, collecting the samples of highest ice, conducting biodiversity surveys at multiple elevations, conducting the highest-elevation helicopter-based lidar scan, expansion of elevation records for high dwelling species, and documentation of the history of mountains glaciers. On 20 January 2021, nearly after seven months of installation the automated weather station stopped transmitting and succumbed to extreme weather conditions. After the station stopped transmitting the wind sensors below it and the next-highest station also stopped transmitting. However, due to COVID-19, the repairs and maintenance could not take place at the same time.
Earlier this year, China installed three weather stations at the height of  8,300 meters, 7,790 meters, and 7,028 meters on the north of Everest. According to CGTN, Beijing has seven such stations that are operating between 5,200 meters and 8,300 meters.  In 2021, four stations at altitudes of 6,500 meters, 5,800 meters, 5,400 meters, and 5,200 meters were established on the north side of the mountain. In Nepal, one weather station is at an elevation of 3,810 meters. Another is near Everest base camp at an elevation of 5,315 meters. The highest three stations are at 6,464 meters, one is at 7,945 meters, and one is at 8430 meters.

High mountain weather station: Challenges and Significance

Extreme weather conditions
Mountains witness extreme wind speed sometimes around 100 miles per hour which disables the weather station and makes it unfit for transmission. The equipment of the weather station is not resilient enough to sustain the harsh weather conditions which do not let the weather station sustain for longer periods of time. In 2008, rocks blew into an Italian weather station and destroyed it. However, the station should be resilient enough to sustain the harsh winds on the summit. Wind sensors in the station are the most vulnerable instruments and can wear out easily. In the National Geographic expedition, the members carried a pitot sensor which has no moving parts but it can only sensor can only monitor wind from a 40-degree width in a fixed direction and must be facing the prevailing wind. 
Periodic maintenance
The high mountain weather stations usually stop operating due to the fragile equipment getting damaged. The bearings wear out and the propellers break. Any normal weather station requires proper maintenance periodically. However, at such high elevations, periodic maintenance is not possible. 
Carrying equipment to the summit
The setting up of a weather station on the summit not only required months of planning and preparation but also carrying equipment above 8,000 meters of elevation. The team has to set up the weather station in mind-numb conditions due to the lack of oxygen. Specialized equipment and training are required to climb the world's tallest mountain, and physical effort is required to set up the weather stations and assemble them.

According to the Hindu-Kush Himalaya Assessment report by the International Center for Integrated Mountain Development, two-thirds of the Himalayan glaciers will disappear by the end of the century if the carbon emissions are not limited. For a better understanding of how mountains continue to warm, data from weather stations from 5,000 metres to 8,000 metres is extremely important for future projections. Global warming is resulting in snow and ice melt, in turn, affecting the water cycle of South Asia which sustains billions of population downstream. 
The data received from the station is useful in predicting the climate and its impact on the loss of ice and snow. The data is extremely useful for mountaineers to assess the climbing conditions. Additionally, weather data is essential to any big mountain climb, helping guides plan expeditions and keep clients safe. With mountain weather stations at high altitudes, it is possible to measure the subtropical Jet Stream. These winds have a global impact because they affect how storms move. Real-time weather data from Mount Everest can help in measuring the subtropical jet streams which can be useful in identifying climate change trends. Therefore, Mount Everest is the best possible field to collect climate data.  

Dispute over the Everest between Nepal and China

From a political perspective, Mount Everest has been a source of conflict between Nepal and China with their border running across the summit of Mount Everest. The mountain is divided into northern and southern parts with the former under the control of Beijing, and the latter, under the control of Kathmandu. In 2021, Beijing announced its plan to put a “line of separation” on the summit to avoid the climbers to mingle with each other at the top. There have been several disagreements in the past over the height of Everest. In 2005, a Chinese survey announced the height of the peak to be 8844 metres, four metres more than Nepal’s officially recognized height. In 2010, both countries debated over whether the snow height is to be considered or the rock height which was resolved by China accepting Nepal’s claim of recognising snow height. Both sides were also using different points of sea level for measuring the height. China used the Yellow Sea and Nepal used the Bay of Bengal. However, in 2019, both countries agreed to jointly measure the height. The new height announced was 8848.86 metres using Nepal’s snow height and point of reference as the global sea levels resolving the decades-long conflict over the height of the world’s highest peak.

Way forward

Mount Everest is of international significance to both Nepal and China and at times, has spurred conflict between the two countries. The presence of the US, British, Chinese, and Nepalese scientists on Mount Everest for setting up weather stations on the summit reflects a new international scientific race towards collecting high mountain data. Nevertheless, the existence of more weather stations on the northern and southern parts of Mount Everest is useful for meteorological data, identifying the global climate trends, and building accurate climate models for mountain weather forecasts.
Additionally, there is a need to build resilient weather stations that can sustain the extreme weather conditions on the mountain top.

World's highest weather station installed on Mt. Everest,” The Times of India, 19 May 2022.
Freddie Wilkinson, “Next-gen weather station installed near Everest’s summit,” National Geographic, 25 May 2022.
Freddie Wilkinson “Inside the Everest expedition that built the world’s highest weather station,”National Geographic, 13 June 2019.
Matthews et al, “Going to Extremes: Installing the World’s Highest Weather Stations on Mount Everest,” Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, 10 November 2010.
Tanmay Kadam, “‘Conquering The Everest’ — China Sets Up The World’s Highest Weather Station On World’s Highest Peak,” Eurasian Times, 6 May 2022.

About the author
Akriti Sharma is currently a doctoral scholar at the School of Conflict and Security Studies, National Institute of Advanced Studies. Her PhD thesis is titled “Climate change and the Himalayas: A case for regional governance framework.” Her research interests include climate governance, Indian Foreign Policy, and the politics of Jammu and Kashmir.

In Brief
By Akriti Sharma 

Australia: World’s largest plant is a seagrass
On 31 May, the New York Times reported that the world’s largest plant is sea grass discovered off Australia’s coast. The species is known as the Poseidon’s ribbon weed and according to researchers it has spread to cover an area the size of the US city in the state of Ohio, Cincinnati over the past 4,500 years. It covers about 277 square kilometres of area. The research has been published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B. It was discovered by accident by a team of researchers who took shoots from across the area and genetically marked 18,000 shoots to create a fingerprint of the same. The DNA of all the samples of the shoot was similar which indicated that it was one single plant. The species grow 37.5 cm in a year and that is how it was estimated that it is 4500 years old.

The plant has survived ancient climate change and is quite resilient to extreme weather conditions which is why it has sustained for 4500 years. According to a researcher who was in the team reported by the BBC: It appears to be really resilient, experiencing a wide range of temperatures and salinities plus extreme high light conditions, which together would typically be highly stressful for most plants," Additionally, the grass seems to be a hybrid of two species and possesses two complete sets of chromosomes. 

A hybrid of two species of plant is called polyploidy which can be lethal for animal embryos and harmless in plants. The combination of two genes and cloning might have played a key role in grass’s survival during a period of ancient climate change. A researcher reported by CNN said: "What was even more interesting was that it has double the number of chromosomes than in other populations we had been studying. It has 40, not the usual 20," Apart from the seagrass, Utah’s Pando which is a colony of 40,000 Aspen trees with connected roots is the “largest individual plant” on Earth covering an area of 106 acres with the same DNA. (Tiffanie Turnball, “World's biggest plant discovered off the Australian coast,” BBC, 1 June 2022; Kate Golembiewski, “The World’s Largest Plant Is a Self-Cloning Sea Grass in Australia,” The New York Times, 31 May 2022; Katie Hunt, “World's largest plant discovered in Australia,” CNN, 1 June 2022)

S&T Nuggets
By Akriti Sharma and Harini Madhusudan

The UK: Coral species to move north due to warming
On 27 May, according to the study by the University of Exeter, the vulnerable pink sea fan species will spread northwards as a result of global warming. The species is globally classified as "vulnerable" and is also listed as a “species of principal importance” in England and Wales. According to a professor from the University of Exeter, reported by the BBC”: "Our future predictions... revealed an increase in suitable habitat for pink sea fans to the north of its current range - so the species could spread northwards by 2100. He added: "We also found that existing habitat across south-west Britain, the Channel Islands, and north-west France is predicted to remain suitable for this species over the next 60-80 years."Additionally, the study also looked at marine coral species called dead man's fingers which are expected to lose habitat in the southern part and increase in the northern parts. Both species are significant to the marine ecosystem as they add complexity to reef systems and support marine biodiversity. (“Coral may spread north, University of Exeter study finds,” BBC, 27 May 2022)

Environment: Soaring fertiliser prices affect agriculture
On 27 May, BBC reported that the global prices of fertilizer have been soaring due to the extreme weather, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and transport disruptions. A farmer reported by the BBC saw an increase in the fertilizer for soybeans, corn, wheat, cotton, peanuts, and oats increased by 320 per cent. Russia is the key producer of chemical fertilizers and also natural gas used in producing ammonia. Soaring prices are affecting the farming patterns of the farmers who are forced to shift to conventional ways of farming. However, it might be useful for the overuse of fertilizer which is harmful to the environment and turns the land barren. In the global south, Sri Lanka came up with a measure to shift to organic fertilisers which backfired and resulted in a sharp decrease in agriculture productivity. On the other hand, Nepal has been struggling to meet its fertiliser needs as the sowing season is approaching and has sought assistance from World Bank and India to deal with the shortages which might lead to a decrease in crop yield pushing the country to the economic crisis. (Christine Ro, “Soaring fertiliser prices force farmers to rethink,” BBC, 27 May 2022)

Environment: Floods in India and Bangladesh
On 22 May, heavy pre-monsoon showers submerged villages, train stations, and towns in both Bangladesh and India. Around 60 people have been killed in the flooding, landslides, and thunderstorms. Many people have been facing food and water supply shortages. In India, the northeast was one of the worst affected regions and has submerged railway tracks, bridges, and roads. In Assam, 31 out of 33 districts have been affected by floods, impacting millions of lives. Thirty people were killed in the Indian state of Bihar. In Bangladesh, extreme rainfall and landslides washed away Rohingya refugee camps. South Asia has been witnessing the brunt of extreme weather and is the most vulnerable region of the world when it comes to climate risks. (Karan Deep Singh and Saif Hasnat, “Millions Displaced and Dozens Dead in Flooding in India and Bangladesh,” The New York Times, 22 May 2022)

China: Earth observation satellites with BRICS countries launched
On 25 May, the representatives of the space agencies of BRICS member countries attended an online meeting to launch the BRICS Joint Committee on Space Cooperation. The committee would work with the goal of cooperation in remote sensing satellite observation and data sharing among member countries. The Head of CNSA stated that the joint committee would play an important role in “guiding cooperation on the BRICS Remote Sensing Satellite Constellation to better serve economic and social development in member countries. ” (Park Si-soo, “China launches satellite-based Earth observation initiative with BRICS nations,” SpaceNews, 31 May 2022) 

The US: New Cybersecurity Standards for commercial operators
On 26 May, the Space Systems Command announced a new process that assesses the cybersecurity strength of the private/commercial satellite operators that do business with the US Defense Department. The commercial suppliers of satellite-based services are evaluated based on their cybersecurity practices and systems, according to the IA-Pre or the Infrastructure Asset Pre-Approval program. The process hopes to create a pool of pre-approved suppliers and ensure effective safeguards are applied to reduce the risks that are likely targeted at the DoD missions. (Sandra Erwin, “Space Force rolls out cybersecurity standards for commercial providers of satellite services,” SpaceNews, 26 May 2022)

Technology: Misogyny in Metaverse
On 25 May, campaigners said that the avatar of a 21-year-old researcher was sexually harassed on the Metaverse. The person worked for a corporate accountability group called SumOfUs and was harassed on a virtual reality platform called Horizon Worlds. With a simplified cartoonish appearance, Horizon Worlds is only available to users in the US and Canada. A statement from the representatives of SumOfUs said that the virtual assaults are insanely traumatic. Previously, after similar complaints were raised, Meta introduced a new set of safeguards into the virtual worlds. A concept of Personal Boundary was introduced, where an adversary cannot move beyond the boundary. The researcher has said that they experienced homophobic slurs and observed virtual gun violence. (BBC, “Female avatar sexually assaulted in Meta VR platform, campaigners say,” BBC Technology, 25 May 2022)

The UK: Facial recognition company fined for illegally storing data
On 23 May, the facial recognition company called Clearview AI has been fined by the UK privacy watchdog more than 7.5 million Pounds. The watchdog has also told the company to delete the data of the UK residents. The company has been working on creating a global facial recognition database, but it breaches UK data protection laws. "I am deeply disappointed that the UK Information Commissioner has misinterpreted my technology and intentions, we collect only public data from the open internet and comply with all standards of privacy and law,” said Clearview AI chief executive Hoan Ton-That. (Shiona McCallum, “Clearview AI fined in UK for illegally storing facial images,” BBC Technology, 23 May 2022)

About the authors
Harini Madhusudan and Akriti Sharma are PhD Scholars at the School of Conflict and Security Studies, NIAS. 

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