One would immediately like to question, when confronted with this assertion, why this micro-specificity down to the last centimetre about a mountain which by its very loftiness makes such an exercise seem slightly ridiculous. As we delve deeper, the exercise actually does begin to look farcical, as should any scientific endeavour taken to illogical limits.
In the case of Everest´s height, it is certainly important to know the exact height of the mountain. However, it seems that our friends in Beijing have gone overboard in decreeing a specific height when, as we shall see, the debate has not even begun as to the approach tobetakento measure the last few inches and centimetres of mountain-tops. If the Bureau had chosen not to go to down to the second decimal point, there would have been no reason to fault it.
As we shall see, the only finding that the Bureau´s scientists can justify is the following: "at a specific time and at a specific point under the snow at the summit pyramid of Everest, not necessarily the highest point, subtracting the snow accumulated (which fluctuates with season, snowfall, wind velocity), the elevation above sea-level was found to be 8846.27 metres."
That would have been the scientist´s report, whereas it is the chaps at public relations that seem to have the upper hand. Which is why at every turn we are con fronted with banner headlines announcing "new height of Everest". Since the Sagarmatha summit is shared equally with Nepal, perhaps in future the Royal Nepal Academy of Science and Technology should be consulted before announcements are made.
To state the obvious, all major Himalayan peaks have snow on their summits. This might not be true with certain lower mountains with extremely steep summit outcrop-pings, but generally it can be expected that there is snow at the top.The problem tackled and inadequately answered by the Chinese on Everest is something that has to be considered as one gauges the height of every other himal. This is as best a place as any to consider the issues that are thrown up.
Since all Himalayan massifs have snow at the top, does the height of the mountain have to include the thickness of snow invariably found on the summit, or does the ´true´ height extend only up to the top of the rock that makes the mountain. Accepting the former is also conceding that practically none of the measurements made of mountain heights are accurate, bearing in mind the fluctuation in the amount of snow that accumulates on mountain tops.
The snow´s height at the summit would depend upon the strength of the Jetstream (that famous plume on Everest and other 8OOOers, which is snow being whipped away by the high winds), time of year, angle of sun, level of snow precipitation, and number of climbers tramping about at thetop packing the snow. On the day 34 climbers were waiting at the Hillary Step for their turn on the tourist trail to the top, the height of Everest would have decreased by at least five cm.
Those who believe that true height should refer only to the rock tip under the snow have even more explaining to do. True, only the bald know exactly how tall they are, and immovable rock provides a scientific specificity that even packed snow could never match. However, rocks in the natural state do not form perfect pyramids that taper up to a perfect tip. Jagged points vie with each other for supremacy.
Admitting this, how can one be sure the end of the rod used on Everest by the Chinese scientists to plumb the depth of snow came to rest on the highest point of rock? The rod sunk into the snow could easily have missed a higher protuberance (if only by a centimetre) on any side.
Furthermore, where does one begin probing? Snow keeps on shifting following the mood of the winds. The (momentarily) highest point on a snow mound does not necessarily indicate that it is directly on top of the conical tip of the rock underneath,assuming such a conical tip exists under Everest or any other peak.
There are, of course, ways to find out the highest point of the rock lying under the snow, although the likelihood is that the Chinese did not try them on Everest. An expedition can be mounted with climbers equipped with shovels to clear the snow off the top and having accomplished this, the topmost rocky section of the mountain can beidentified.If shovels are too cumbersome, the climber-scientists could demarcate a 10 by 10 feet squareon the summit mound and poke (the aforementioned) rod all over to figure out the highest point. Another method would be to take a lateral sonogram of the mountain top.
The sheer impracticality of trying to decide on the true snow summit and rock summit, therefore, encourages us level-headed landlubbers to search for the Middle Path, which shuns misplaced scientific positivism on the one hand and those who couldn´t care less on the other.
An Everest Mean
Rather than allow the scientists the leeway to continuously come up with new heights to confuse the world´s public with, it is important once and for all to decree a mean for Everest and leave it at that, at least for a decade, after which we can revise the figure taking into account the rising height of the Himalaya due to plate tectonics.
This mean height must be calculated for the snow on Everest-top, and not the rock, for it is snow that makes the summit of Everest. If God and Geology had wanted to measure the top accord i ng to the rock height, we would have been given a rock pinnacle where no snow accumulates. Instead, the Third Pole has been endowed with generous snow even though much of the mountain, especially the southern flanks, is mostly dark granite and sandstone.
The exactitude of the Bureau scientistsin coming up with the 8846.27 m height is,therefore, to be appreciated but not believed.Since their reading of the snow-laden summit was 8848.82 m, this writer would suggest that we round it off at 8849 meters for the sake of the mass public. Let this figure be reconfirmed by one more look at the mountain, and then let it stand for at least a decade before we decide to confuse the public once more.
Romila Thapar addresses invitees at the
Southasian relaunch of Himal Southasian,
IIC, New Delhi, January 2013.
The archive: 25 years of Southasia
China, Southasia and India
On May 19 2013, newly appointed Chinese Premier Li Keqiang arrived in New Delhi for a series of meetings with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. The visit is Keqiang's first outside of China since assuming power in March.
From our archive:
Purna Basnet discusses Chinese engagement in Nepal vis-a-vis security issues in Tibet and broader geo-strategic plans in Southasia (April 2011).
Fatima Chowdury relates the story of Calcutta's Indian Chinese community through the lens of political and economic upheavals in Southasia and China (May 2009).
Simon Long notes the importance of the Sino-Indian relationship for the rest of Southasia (September 2006).
J.N Dixit ruminates on the strategic concerns of the 'Middle Kingdom' in the wake of India's 1998 nuclear tests (June 1998).