How Tall Is Mount Everest? The Fascinating Story of a Mountain’s Moveable Measurements

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Ever wondered how many poker chips you need to stack to reach the height of Mount Everest? If you go by the long-accepted measurement of 8848 metres, you might need to adjust the number of poker chips because measuring a mountain is no static achievement.

Nepal and China have been debating the actual height of Mount Everest since 1955. Although an Indian survey in 1955 pegged the mountain’s height up to the top of its snowy peak a whopping 8,848 meters (29,029 feet), China has always debated that Everest’s rock height is only 8,844.43 meters. Nepal has always agreed with the survey’s measurements.

This week a crew of Nepal government officials have begun to the scale the mountain for an updated measurement, hopefully putting to rest the debate of how tall Mount Everest actually is.

Measuring the Mountain

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This mysterious, towering wonder of the Himalayas is hands down the tallest peak in the world. Known as Sagarmatha in Nepali and Chomolungma in Tibetan, Mount Everest received its English name in 1865. Andrew Waugh, Surveyor General of India, requested the name of the Royal Geographical Society. Waugh wanted to name the mountain after Sir George Everest, his predecessor, who was the Surveyor General until 1843. However, it was Waugh who conducted the first measurement of Everest.

Measuring the mountain back in 1856 was no small task. Factors that obfuscated Waugh’s calculations included atmospheric refraction and political issues. Atmospheric refraction occurs when the bending of light across large expanses creates a mirage-like effect. This can skew the real size and distance of objects, like huge mountains. Political issues also made it hard for Waugh’s crew to approach the mountain too closely, putting most of the crew’s calculations at 100 miles away.

Yet, even back in 1856, Waugh and his team spent a year calculating an astonishingly accurate number – one that has been considered the true measurement until present day. Without GPS or altimeters, he employed triangulation and trigonometry to accomplish the monumental feat. He first planted several observers at several different vantage points to examine the peak. After discerning the distance from these points to the mountain, they used basic trigonometry to measure an angle from Everest’s peak to their individual observation points, basing this equation off sea level elevation. With all these factors, good science and math prevailed, making his figure of 29,029 feet, or 8,848 metres, the height still generally accepted in the world.  

In May of 1999, an American expedition challenged this number using GPS technology and measured 8,850 metres. Although this new figure is used by the US National Geographic Society, most of the world, including Nepal, has not yet accepted this number.

Can Everest Change Its Height?

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In 1999 it appeared that perhaps the mountain had grown two metres. Is this possible? Can a mountain shift and grow? Factors that that make calculating Everest’s height today a challenge include the shifting of tectonic plates and fluctuating snow and ice. The Eurasian and Indian tectonic plates shift, creating a potential quarter of an inch increase every year. Snow and ice also complicate matters, making the exact measurement difficult to pinpoint.

However, those shifting tectonic plates that give the mountain its height may also be to blame for the mountain potentially shrinking. In 2015, Nepal was struck by a massive 7.8 earthquake. This deadly quake claimed almost 9,000 lives and injured tens of thousands.

After the earthquake damage was cleared, scientists viewed irregularities in the landscape that may point to the fact that Mount Everest actually shrunk after 20 seconds of ground-shaking devastation.

But can a mountain actually shrink? Since the claims were made, scientists have debated and speculated on the reality of the situation. Many experts deny an earthquake could actually impact the impenetrable mass of Mount Everest. Yet, enough people still were curious that talks began in 2017 to remeasure the mountain and find out, once and for all, what the current height of the geological giant is.

A New Day for Nepal and Everest

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That plan to remeasure Everest took two years to put together an expedition, but it’s now in place. On Wednesday, April 10th, 2019, four government officials from Nepal struck off to clinch this exciting moment in history. The team members are Khimlal Gautam, Rabin Karki, Suraj Singh Bhandari, and Yuvaraj Dhital. Along with the Nepali survey team, the National Geographic Society is also making an Everest expedition. They will be planting five automatic weather stations along the climbing route to measure weather, atmospheric conditions, and changing climate to gain data for climate research. According to Nepali Prime Minister K.P. Sharma Oli, “It will be the authentic data regarding the height of the tallest peak once you come up with the report.” A win for Nepal, it will be their own survey party that calculates the official height, giving this marginalized country a chance to finally take part in the measuring of its own mountain.