FROM THE FIELD
A Pyramid on Everest, Caught in the Balance
A few weeks ago, Pasang Yangjee Sherpa attended a movie screening for Ningwasum, an Indigenous sci-fi film that imagines a future in which Himalayan peoples are centered and empowered rather than marginalized.
But within that story set in the future, she immediately recognized something from both her present and her past: the Pyramid International Laboratory and Observatory. Covered in solar panels and tucked among the rocks and snow of the Himalayas, the Pyramid is a decades-old atmospheric research facility that has become a kind of place marker for communities in Nepal’s Khumbu Valley. Sherpa included some of the Pyramid’s history in her PhD dissertation in 2012.
“The Pyramid in that movie becomes a backdrop to imagine a sovereign Indigenous future,” Sherpa, who is an assistant professor in the Department of Asian Studies and Critical Indigenous Studies at the University of British Columbia, said in an interview with GlacierHub. “I think it [would be] a very interesting way of using the Pyramid, by people from the region to imagine a future for themselves, and of themselves.”
But while the film imagines the Pyramid of the future, scientists and international research organizations have struggled to do the same. What was once one of the region’s most prominent research centers for high-altitude science and climate monitoring has drastically reduced its output for the better part of the last decade, with just one employee keeping basic monitors running.
Constructed in 1990 as a partnership with Italy’s National Research Council and the Nepal Academy of Science and Technology, the Pyramid — also known as EV-K2-CNR — has captured local weather data for decades. In addition, it served as a hub for air pollution monitoring as well as a base from which to conduct biodiversity research and conservation efforts, among other long-term projects.
Despite the station’s placement on the mountain, Sherpa notes that local residents were not involved in its development or siting; the first materials arrived on the mountain with little to no Indigenous input, sidelining potential community suggestions or support from the start. Still, she says that the Pyramid was once a source of livelihood, and propelled the few local people employed by the station to prominence in the area.
“The people who were employed had a good source of income, but also were getting the kind of training that they would otherwise not get easily,” she explained. “So, the experiences they got at the Pyramid station are now actually helping the community utilize that knowledge at the higher community leadership role.”
All told, researchers based in the Pyramid station were involved in more than 500 scientific missions, collaborating with 148 different institutions and more than 200 researchers. Published research out of the station ranges from the behavior of regional brown clouds to the human immune system’s response to high altitude exposure. But in 2014, the Italian National Research Council shifted priorities and pulled much of its funding from the Pyramid, shifting the burden of financial support onto its partners in Nepal as well as private donors.
Miriam Jackson, program coordinator of the Cryosphere Initiative at the International Center for Integrated Mountain Development based in Kathmandu, told GlacierHub this is a common pattern for high-altitude monitoring stations. “The initial cost of putting up a station is quite minor compared with the long-term commitment over the life of the station,” she explained. “It’s like with everything else — you have to maintain it.”
That balancing act between sustaining both interest and research budgets becomes increasingly challenging from year to year.
“It’s a lot more exciting to put [a station] in and work on it for several years. But then to keep on maintaining it for a few more years, the excitement level drops,” Jackson said. “If there’s changes in the government budget on the Italian side, once that budget drops and you lose that funding, it’s very hard to get it going again.”
Maintaining a high-altitude weather station is no simple task. The nature of the terrain as well as local infrastructure means moving equipment in the region may take days, and could require expensive transport like helicopters. Heavy rainstorms or landslides can delay these journeys even further. Solar radiation at high altitudes can damage equipment more quickly, and require more specialized materials. Plus, the work itself can be strenuous — especially at an altitude of over 5,000 meters.
“The government departments have a lot of responsibility, and they might not necessarily just have enough personnel, or have personnel with the right skills, to go around and do this work,” Jackson said. “They don’t have the resources that many other countries do.”
Some of the elements that make these stations so challenging to maintain are precisely what makes their data so valuable — not only to scientists interested in climate change, but also to residents concerned about its immediate impacts. Himalayan glaciers supply drinking water for nearly 2 billion people, and glacial melt may lead to more flooding in downstream villages.
Scott Williamson, a Canadian cryosphere researcher working with Polar Knowledge Canada, explained in an interview with GlacierHub that monitoring stations like the Pyramid are a window to understanding how high-altitude glaciers will change.
“There are a bunch of things on our planet that are warming faster than average, and it turns out that high elevation is one of them,” he said. Elevation-dependent warming is one of the factors pushing Himalayan glaciers to melt.
These glaciers, which are located at both high altitude and low latitude, are unique in that they fall into a range of the atmosphere where precipitation can occur. Before anthropogenic climate change, snowfall onto these glaciers was relatively uncommon. However, as the planet warms, the capacity for the atmosphere to hold water vapor increases. This can lead to more snowfall onto these glaciers, and offers one way for them to gain mass back from melting.
“So, we know we’re increasing both — we know we’re increasing precipitation, we know we’re increasing melt,” Williamson said. “The question for the health of the glaciers is: which one is doing the driving? Is it melting faster than it’s increasing in precipitation?”
By keeping track of changes to atmospheric water vapor concentrations on Mount Everest, Williamson explained that the Pyramid station provides a baseline for understanding the precipitation-melt interaction on glaciers.
Pasang Yangjee Sherpa points out that there are likely many research questions that have gone unasked over the years, which the Pyramid could still contribute to answering. And she believes the local Indigenous community could form an important part of that possibility.
“Has anyone considered gifting the Pyramid to the local community, who have been taking care of it and living with it since it was installed many years ago?” she asked. Sherpa sees an opportunity to re-envision the station as a site for more locally driven investigation and research. She notes that local interests may vary, but some are likely to align with existing economic livelihoods. This includes more specific weather predictions geared towards the tourism industry, or better understanding rainfall patterns that may affect local crop yields.
“Now that we have this structure, which the Sherpas have been living with for decades, what can we do with it so that we can produce responsible science?” she said. “What would the new kind of science that is creative, that’s innovative, and that addresses the real challenge of today look like? And how does EV-K2-CNR propel us to do that?”
Partnerships with climate scientists and Indigenous peoples are already underway in multiple continents, from weather forecasting in Tanzania to assessing ice loss in Alaska to fire management practices in Australia. This kind of scientific collaboration has been shown to benefit both parties.
Ultimately, the first few decades of the Pyramid’s history tell the story of a trailblazing station that was the first of its kind — one that provided great value to the region and world, but proved to be dependent on the goodwill of foreign funders. As it shifts into a new chapter of its history, scientists and research agencies alike may recognize that something much closer to home — the Indigenous community of Sherpas — offers promising potential for a new, innovative purpose.
GlacierHub is a climate communication initiative led by Ben Orlove, an anthropologist at the Columbia Climate School. Many of GlacierHub's writers are Climate School students or alumni.