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Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Explained: Why China and Nepal are measuring the height of Mt Everest again

Mt Everest's current official height of 8,848m has been widely accepted since 1956, when the figure was measured by the Survey of India.

By: Explained Desk | New Delhi | Updated: September 18, 2020 12:24:24 pm
Mount Everest or Sagarmatha, Earth’s highest mountain above sea level, is located in the Himalayas between China and Nepal

Almost a year after China and Nepal together decided to re-measure the elevation of the world’s highest mountain, the two countries are soon expected to announce its latest official height, the Nepali Times reported.

Mount Everest or Sagarmatha, Earth’s highest mountain above sea level, is located in the Himalayas between China and Nepal -– the border between them running across its summit point. Its current official elevation – 8,848m – places it more than 200m above the world’s second-highest mountain, K2, which is 8,611m tall and located in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir.

The mountain gets its English name from Sir George Everest, a colonial-era geographer who served as the Surveyor General of India in the mid-19th century. Considered an elite climbing destination, Everest was first scaled in 1953 by the Indian-Nepalese Tenzing Norgay and New Zealander Edmund Hillary.

Why is the height being measured again?

Everest’s current official height– 8,848m– has been widely accepted since 1956, when the figure was measured by the Survey of India. The height of the summit, however, is known to change because of tectonic activity, such as the 2015 Nepal earthquake. Its measurement over the decades has also depended on who was surveying.

Another debate is whether the height should be based on the highest rock point or the highest snow point. For years, Nepal and China disagreed over the issue, which was resolved in 2010 when China accepted Nepal’s claim of the snow height being 8,848m, while the Nepali side recognised the Chinese claim of the rock height at 8,844.43m.

Then in 2019, when Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Nepal, the two countries agreed to remeasure Everest’s height and announce the findings together.

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According to the Nepali Times, a reason behind the joint effort is that previous measurements of the mountain were by Indian, American or European surveyors, and that the joint effort represents national pride for Nepal and China who will now come up with their own figure.

A team from Nepal completed its task last year, and China carried out its expedition in May 2020, amid the coronavirus pandemic. Both teams are using different points of reference for sea level – China using the Yellow sea and Nepal using a point close to the Bay of Bengal coast, the Nepali Times report said.

The report also said that Nepal has completed its calculations, and is waiting for China to complete its part of the task. A date for the joint announcement has been pushed back because of the pandemic.

Everest’s first survey

The mission to measure the world’s highest peak was taken up on a serious note in 1847, and culminated with the finding of a team led by Andrew Waugh of the Royal Surveyor General of India. The team discovered that ‘Peak 15’ — as Mt Everest was referred to then — was the highest mountain, contrary to the then prevailing belief that Mt Kanchenjunga (8,582 m) was the highest peak in the world.

Another belief, prevailing even today, is that 8,840 m is not the height that was actually determined by the 19th-century team. It is widely believed that Waugh and his team actually measured the peak at 29,000 feet —which works out to 8,839 m — but were worried that 29,000 feet would not convince people that it was authentic. And so, according to reports that have endured, the team added 2 ft to make it look more convincing. That makes it 29,002 ft, which converts into 8,840 m.

In any case, officials say, the Nepal government does not have any record or authentic version of that survey, as it was done by the Surveyor General of India’s office during the British Raj. That survey, based on trigonometric calculations, is known as the Great Trigonometric Survey of India.

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