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China, Nepal agree Mount Everest is a bit higher than past measurements

The new height was agreed on after the two countries sent surveyors from their respective sides of the mountain in 2019 and 2020.

BEIJING, China — Editor's note: The attached video is from June 2019.

China and Nepal jointly announced a new official height for Mount Everest on Tuesday, ending a discrepancy between the two nations.

The new height of the world's highest peak is 8,848.86 meters (29,031.7 feet), which is slightly more than Nepal’s previous measurement and about four meters (13 feet) higher than China’s.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and his Nepalese counterpart, Pradeep Gyawali, simultaneously pressed buttons during a virtual conference and the new height flashed on the screen.

The height of Everest, which is on the border between China and Nepal, was agreed on after surveyors from Nepal scaled the peak in 2019 and a Chinese team did the same in 2020.

There had been debate over the actual height of the peak and concern that it might have shrunk after a major earthquake in 2015. The quake killed 9,000 people, damaged about 1 million structures in Nepal and triggered an avalanche on Everest that killed 19 people at the base camp.

There was no doubt that Everest would remain the highest peak because the second highest, Mount K2, is only 8,611 meters (28,244 feet) tall.

Everest's height was first determined by a British team around 1856 as 8,842 meters (29,002) feet.

But the most accepted height has been 8,848 meters (29,028 feet), which was determined by the Survey of India in 1954.

In 1999, a National Geographic Society team using GPS technology came up with a height of 8,850 (29,035 feet). A Chinese team in 2005 said it was 8,844.43 meters (29,009 feet) because it did not include the snow cap.

Credit: AP
FILE - In this May 27, 2019, file photo, a bird flies with Mount Everest seen in the background from Namche Bajar, Solukhumbu district, Nepal.

A Nepal government team of climbers and surveyors scaled Everest in May 2019 and installed GPS and satellite equipment to measure the peak and snow depth on the summit.

Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Nepal later that year and the leaders of the two countries decided that they should agree on a height.

A survey team from China then conducted measurements in the spring of 2020 while all other expeditions were canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Nepal's climbing community welcomed the end of confusion over the mountain's height.

“This is a milestone in mountaineering history which will finally end the debate over the height and now the world will have one number,” said Santa Bir Lama, president of the Nepal Mountaineering Association.

China's official Xinhua New Agency quoted Xi as saying the two sides are committed to jointly protecting the environment around Everest and cooperating in scientific research.

Credit: AP
Nepalese government officers watch a live telecast of a joint announcement on the height of Mount Everest, in Kathmandu, Nepal, Tuesday, Dec. 8, 2020.

For China, the announcement appeared to be as much about politics as geography. China has drawn Nepal ever closer into its orbit with investments in its economy and the building of highways, dams, airports and other infrastructure in the impoverished nation.

That appears to serve China’s interests in reducing the influence of rival India, with which it shares a disputed border, and Nepal’s role as a destination for refugee Tibetans.

The Xinhua report said nothing about the technical aspects but heavily emphasized the joint announcement’s geopolitical weight.

China and Nepal will establish an “even closer community of a shared future to enrich the countries and their peoples,” Xinhua quoted Xi as saying.

As definitive as that sounds, geological changes, the complicated business of measuring a mountain and varying criteria for determining the world’s highest peak will likely ensure the question isn’t settled for good.

GEOLOGICAL UPS AND DOWNS

The mountain’s height changes. The movement of tectonic plates can lift it up ever so gradually, while earthquakes can bring it down.

The countervailing forces may help maintain a degree of stability over time, said Dang Yamin, a member of a Chinese team that surveyed Everest's height earlier this year.

“Nature tends to strike a balance," he told the official Xinhua News Agency. As an example, Dang cited a massive 1934 earthquake that wiped out 150 years of steady height increase in a few moments.

MEASURING MOUNTAINS

There's more than one way to measure a mountain.

Last year, a Nepalese team set up a satellite navigation marker on Everest's peak to gauge its exact position via GPS satellites. A Chinese team undertook a similar mission this spring, though it used the Chinese-made Beidou constellation of navigation satellites, along with other equipment.

At the same time, Nepalese crews took measurements with modern, laser-equipped versions of instruments called theodolites, first used to gauge the mountain’s height in 1856 by measuring angles using trigonometry.

The Nepalese team also used ground penetrating radar to measure the amount of snow and ice that sits on top of its highest rock.

AND THE ANSWER IS ...

China and Nepal presented a new official figure of 8,848.86 meters (29,031.69 feet) above sea level. The agreement announced Tuesday was heralded as a sign of the growing political, economic and cultural ties between the two countries.

The new height is 0.86 meters (more than 2 feet) above the higher of the countries' two previous figures, that given by Nepal. The two had diverged for year over the mountain’s actual height.

Measuring the height above sea level has always been tricky because ocean levels vary considerably depending on tides, magnetism and other factors. Rising sea levels are creating another factor for future measurements.

HAWAII'S UNDERWATER GIANT

How high above sea level is just one way of measuring a mountain's height. One reason Everest wins the prize is that its base sits high up on already lofty foothills.

As measured from the Earth’s core, Ecuador’s Mount Chimborazo is the world’s highest, standing more than 2,072 meters (6,800 feet) above Everest. Because the Earth bulges in the middle, mountains along the equator are farther from the core.

Measuring from the foot of the mountain to the peak, Hawaii’s Mauna Kea is the tallest. Most of it, however, is under the sea.