Dateline: 04-01-2010, 8:00am, Japan Time; Something New to Worry About

An article in the Japan Examiner this morning posits that we have more to fret about than simple global warming. It seems that cultural geologist Vikram Patel, of the Mumbai think tank Interactive Geoterra has issued a paper documenting that not only is the planet heating up, it is also flattening out at a rather distressing rate. Initial, albeit anecdotal, reports suggested that global warming was causing significant ice melt at the tops of several of Nepal’s highest mountains, Kachenjunga, Lhotse and Makalu, thus rendering their summits several meters lower than previously recorded. In one case, that of Annapurna (8848m), which has no peaks nearby to block intense alpine sun rays, the pinnacle has shrunk by close to 30 meters, roughly one hundred feet. As it turns out, however, it is not simply solar-related meltdown, but a sandification of the underlying rock and soil which causes huge runoff during precipitation and contributes strongly to avalanches of epic proportions compared to landslide activity from as little as five years ago.

Patel came to Japan in 2008 to study the effects of sandification on the Japan Alps, most particularly Japan’s highest mountain, Mt. Fuji. Fuji, which is typically snowbound year round at the peak, has seen broad patches of bare earth showing through the snow cap in summers, particularly on the west side, for the past several years (the first time in recorded history). Patel’s study was an eye opener: previously measured at 3776m (12388 feet), Fuji-san’s summit had slipped alarmingly, close to fifty meters (150 feet) to a corrected altitude of 3730m (12237 feet). Anecdotal information from local growers suggested that their topsoil had become increasingly sandy and infertile over the previous three seasons, which squared with Patel’s assertion that the venerated mountain is inexorably eroding into the plains below.

The following two years found Patel in such diverse mountain locations as Colorado, Kenya, the Urals, and the Andes, and in each case, both the objective data (measurements of summit height, examination of runoff) and subjective data (observations by Patel and his research team, interviews with local residents) support the notion that the world is indeed flattening at a disturbing rate. “I should not be surprised to see Mt. Fuji lose 300 meters more in the course of my lifetime,” opined Patel, who is now forty-nine. “At that rate,” he continued, “assuming even a simple arithmetic progression, we could expect Mt. Fuji as we know it to exist no longer in 200 years.” The ramifications for smaller mountain ranges, like the Eastern US Appalachians, are even more dire. “No one can say with certainty what the weather patterns might look like with the diminishment or absence of mountain ranges, but it would seem to be a foregone conclusion that US Midwestern weather fronts would have no natural barriers to prevent their eastward migration, thus hammering eastern seaboard cities with a barrage of both Atlantic and Plains States storms on a more or less constant basis.”

Patel shrugs off suggestions that he is painting a worst-case “doomsday” scenario. “This is not a case of ‘the sky is falling’,” he points out, “but rather a case of ‘the sky is rising’, as the ground continues to erode away dramatically at the points where it reaches closest to the heavens. This rivals global warming as one of the most difficult challenges to be faced by the human race in the latter part of the 21st century.”

What can we do, if anything, to stem the tide? Patel’s suggestion: “Well, I would say to mountain climbers, please do not take souvenir rocks from the mountaintops when you reach the peaks. Perhaps instead you could bring lowland soil with you on your ascent, to leave at the summit upon arrival. Any small change one can make in one’s behavior has the potential for moving (or rebuilding) mountains when repeated at a global level.”

In closing, Patel offered a short message of hope and comfort he learned as a child at the knee of his Spanish governess: “Feliz Dia de los Inocentes. mis amigos crédulos.” (For a literal translation of Patel’s exceptionally important closing message, please visit http://translate.reference.com/translate, and paste the text into their translator program.)

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