Scientific interest in Mount Everest has been largely focused on the physiology of hypoxia caused by the summit's low barometric pressure. Although weather is recognized as a significant risk for climbers on the mountain, it has not been extensively studied. In this paper, we reconstruct the meteorological conditions associated with the deadly outbreak of high-impact weather on Mount Everest that occurred in May 1996 and was the subject of the best-selling book Into Thin Air. The authors show that during this event, two jet streaks—an upper-level shortwave trough and an intrusion of stratospheric air into the upper troposphere—were present in the vicinity of Mount Everest. Meanwhile, in the lower troposphere, there was convergence of water vapor transport from both the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal into the region to the south of Mount Everest. The authors propose that the ageostrophic circulation associated with the upper-level features resulted in a region of large-scale ascent near Mount Everest that, in combination with the anomalous availability of moisture in the region, triggered convective activity. The resulting high-impact weather trapped over 20 climbers on Mount Everest's exposed upper slopes leading to the deaths of 8. These synoptic-scale characteristics provide some expectation of predicting life-threatening high-altitude storms in the Himalayas. In addition, the authors argue that the falling barometric pressure and the presence of ozone-rich stratospheric air that occurred near the summit of Mount Everest during this event could have shifted a coping climber from a state of brittle tolerance to physiological distress.

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Footnotes

Department of Physics, University of Toronto, Toronto, Ontario, Canada

Department of Surgery, University of Toronto, Toronto, Ontario, Canada