Into Thick(er) Air? Oxygen Availability at Humans' Physiological Frontier on Mount Everest

iScience. 2020 Nov 20;23(12):101718. doi: 10.1016/j.isci.2020.101718. eCollection 2020 Dec 18.


Global audiences are captivated by climbers pushing themselves to the limits in the hypoxic environment of Mount Everest. However, air pressure sets oxygen abundance, meaning it varies with the weather and climate warming. This presents safety issues for mountaineers but also an opportunity for public engagement around climate change. Here we blend new observations from Everest with ERA5 reanalysis (1979-2019) and climate model results to address both perspectives. We find that plausible warming could generate subtle but physiologically relevant changes in summit oxygen availability, including an almost 5% increase in annual minimum VO2 max for 2°C warming since pre-industrial. In the current climate we find evidence of swings in pressure sufficient to change Everest's apparent elevation by almost 750 m. Winter pressures can also plunge lower than previously reported, highlighting the importance of air pressure forecasts for the safety of those trying to push the physiological frontier on Mt. Everest.

Keywords: Atmospheric Observation; Climatology; Glacial Landscapes; Physical Activity; Physiological State.