009 Baker Perry on installing the world’s highest weather station
Host Dr. Lee F. Ball visits with climate scientist and Appalachian geography and planning professor Dr. Baker Perry. Perry shares details about his recent trip to Mount Everest to install the world's highest weather station, the applications of the data being collected at the station and even a little about his time playing basketball under Duke's coach K.Transcript
Announcer: Define sustainability. Odds are your definition is completely different from the next person's. Appalachian State University's Director of Sustainability, Dr. Lee Ball, sits down with his guest to explore the many ways in which sustainability affects our lives. This is Find Your Sustainability.
Lee Ball: On today's podcast I'm here with Baker Perry. Baker is a professor in the Department of Geography and Planning here at Appalachian State University. I invited Baker to today's podcast because I'm really interested in you hearing about his work in climate science related to tropical glaciers in South America, and more recently his adventure to the Himalayas, installing a weather station on the highest mountain in world, Mt. Everest.
Lee Ball: Thank you so much for being here.
Baker Perry: Well, it's a real pleasure to be here, Lee. Thank you for the invitation.
Lee Ball: Baker, you've spent a whole career working in climate science, in that realm, working on glacier research in far-flung places around the world. And most recently you were on an adventure on Mt. Everest. What I'd love for you to share with our listeners is just a quick summary of how you get invited to be a part of that team, and how long you were there. And then I just have a few more questions to follow up.
Baker Perry: No, great question. Looking back, this all happened relatively quickly. It was about a year ago that the official invitation came about from National Geographic and this happened in conjunction with a close colleague, Paul Majewski, who we had here on campus about a year and a half ago, and he's somebody that I had been collaborating with the last couple of years on ice core paleoclimate research project in Peru. And he was tasked by National Geographic to lead the expedition, be the science lead for it.
Baker Perry: And so as a result of that, he had a little bit of latitude on people he could invite to participate, and obviously that had to be cleared by National Geographic. But based on our experience working together and in particular my role in installing and maintaining a network of weather stations in Peru and Bolivia, there was an opportunity for me to join the team and really take a lead on the planning and the installation of the weather station network on Mt. Everest. And so this was a bit of an unanticipated move, perhaps, from the Andes where I've spent so much of my career, and even life before my professional career to the Himalayas.
Baker Perry: But it was a region that I was not entirely unfamiliar with either. I had been to the Everest region, to Nepal about 20 years ago when I was a graduate student, so I had some familiarity with it. And of course, there's, you know, for a lot of us that study the highest mountains and weather processes, extreme weather and snow and ice, there's always a certain degree of fascination with the Himalayas, and in particularly Everest. And so the opportunity to participate in an interdisciplinary scientific expedition with National Geographic was pretty exciting to say the least.
Lee Ball: I'm guessing that the data that will be retrieved, that this weather station's going to be used in a wide variety of ways.
Baker Perry: They are. The data have lots of applications. We're working on several publications right now with direct applications on improving the forecasting on Mt. Everest. The models, what we found are pretty good up there, especially in the short term, but we can make them better and we can improve those forecasts and so we're demonstrating that.
Baker Perry: We're also improving the data that go into the glacier ablation models or the melt models, that are used to predict future glacier extent in the region and water resources. And so that's a direct application.
Baker Perry: And over the longer term we hope to have a much better understanding of the subtropical jet stream. This is one of the few places in the world where the surface interacts with the jet stream. And so that's a unique opportunity to study its behavior. Clearly there are other data sources that are available too, from weather balloons and aircraft flying in them but this is a unique dataset that's right from the surface of some of the highest places in the world.
Baker Perry: And then ultimately our team also recovered an ice core from the South Col in the highest ice core in the world. And so we really think that the weather stations will help us in the interpretation of the ice core as well.
Lee Ball: Prior to this, where was the highest comparable weather station and/or ice core?
Baker Perry: There've been a number of weather stations that have operated intermittently in the past. And the highest weather station was actually on the South Col. The Italians installed the station, I believe it was in 2008. They were successful in collecting some data there, but it was not a continuous record and it had a number of problems with small rocks being picked up by the wind and damaging, impacting the station and damaging the solar panels and the sensors. And so that was a major downfall.
Baker Perry: Other locations have been Sajama, Bolivia. A team from the university of Massachusetts had a station on top of Sajama. And this is over 21,000 feet. At that time it was the highest weather station in the world in the 1990s. Before we went up this year, the highest weather station was really nearby Mt. Everest at a place called Mera Peak. If I get my conversions to feet correctly, just under 21,000 feet or so, maintained by a French scientist with collaborators from Nepal.
Baker Perry: The Italian station has not been operational for many years now and so there was an opportunity to reestablish a station near where they had it, and then possibly get higher. And so when we installed the station at Camp 2, which was at 21,200 feet or thereabouts, it was the highest operating weather station in the world. We got back down to base camp and were informed by Paul Majewski, that our Chinese colleagues on the other side had just installed one a little bit higher. And so we had the world record for a little bit, then went back down to base camp and the Chinese, they broke the record which is great to see the activity, the science, the research taking place on the north side.
Baker Perry: And then when we went back up to the South Col, we made sure to go a little bit higher than where the Italian station was, not only to try to get up a little higher, but also to get out of some of that loose rock, potentially. And it's hard to say whether we're completely out of it, but we feel a little bit better about the site being a little bit higher and perhaps less prone to having that picked up. And then of course when we went up to the Balcony, both the South Col and the Balcony stations were world records for highest weather stations ever installed and that was pretty cool to be part of.
Baker Perry: In terms of ice cores, I'm not exactly sure. I think the highest ice core was probably on a mountain called Shishapangma, in Tibet. I'm not positive on that, but I think that was where the highest previous ice core was found.
Lee Ball: So I heard you had a bit of a MacGyver moment upon the mountain, with duct tape and a shovel. I was trying to imagine what you're up to and how... Was that right? Duct tape and-
Baker Perry: And so the story there was that, we had two stations to install up at the South Col and then of course above that at the Balcony or even higher if we were able to get up there. At camp two we had to divide the loads because our Sherpa team made the carries up to the South Col several days before we went up there as our whole team. And so things had to be packaged and sent up several days before our team went up. And there's multiple people carrying these loads so it's not like you put everything in a bag and one person carries it up because each station weighed about 110 pounds and so it's way too much for a single person to carry. And so different components were split up among different Sherpas, and then those loads get dumped at the South Col campsite, at Camp 4, and then repacked with other items that end up up there.
Baker Perry: So it's not like we have a dedicated tent or even a duffle bag, necessarily, for just each station. It's complicated. And so we ended up having everything we needed for the South Col station. And I mean it was only a 15 minute walk probably from camp and so it was relatively straight forward to sort that out. And if we were missing something, it would have been easy to go back to camp to find it.
Baker Perry: And then after that installation was complete, we went back to camp and we had basically about eight hours before we were to depart for the summit. And so we had a number of things to do, which included melting snow to have water to drink and water to rehydrate our food or our dehydrated food meals. And we needed to rest some. We needed to check on oxygen, get personal equipment ready for the summit push. And then I also was tasked with going out to collect some soil samples for some colleagues to analyze. Because this is a pretty extreme place and to see what kind of life forms are actually in the soil was an interesting question.
Baker Perry: So yeah, we had all those things going on and then the Sherpa team is trying to prepare the loads for the next day and we assumed everything was in order just because everything had made it up to the South Col. But in retrospect I think we didn't fully inventory and check over everything that was being packed.
Baker Perry: And so we end up at the Balcony up there and the station is up. The tripods up, all the sensors are pretty-much up and the last thing to put on are the two wind sensors. And we're looking around, realizing, "Oh no. We don't have the mounts that go into the crossarm that the wind sensors actually sit on." They had just gotten mixed up with the other equipment that came down from the South Col and just were not there. And so we're beating our heads against the wall, not so much against the wall but against our hands and just frustrated because this is really the most important variable that we want to measure up there, is the wind speed and wind direction.
Baker Perry: So, fortunately we had a shovel, I started looking at the handle, and I almost brought it today, I should have brought it. And the handle was about the same diameter as that pipe, at least eyeballing it. And so sure enough, we tried to put it on there and it was reasonably good. The handle was just a bit of an oval and so we needed to shape it out a little bit and then thicken the diameter just a hair. And that's where the duct tape came in, just to thicken the diameter and then that went on.
Baker Perry: But you know, I'll tell you that working with our folks here in the machine shop, Mike Hughes and Dana Green. Those guys have taught me so many things over the years and especially the ways to be creative and improvise. I can really thank them for some of that training and working on these other systems we've had.
Lee Ball: Yeah. Mike and Dana are great. They've helped us a lot with the solar vehicle team. We wouldn't be as successful without them, for sure.
Lee Ball: So it was a really busy year up on the mountain this year. I know that it made a lot of headlines. What was that like? Did that get in your way? Is it something that you had to prepare for?
Baker Perry: I'd certainly followed some of the news reports over the years about Everest and the crowding that has occurred at times, and the traffic jams. And so that was a real concern in the back of my mind. And on the one hand, a lot of that was kind of out of my direct control because I was just one member of a large team and a large group. Our planning as to when we went up to the different camps and also to the summit, depended on a lot of factors, related to health of team members, to the weather windows. And a lot of that was just out of our control.
Baker Perry: And unfortunately what happened this year was that the early weather windows that typically open in early May just did not open. The jet stream just stayed over the region and the winds remained way too high for the Sherpa team to fix the ropes to the summit. And so that meant that it just backed everything up. We were already planning on a later summit window to hopefully allow the first wave of climbers to push through, and then perhaps it would be less crowded then. But what happened is that all that got delayed and then we started running into the end of May and concerned about the monsoon coming in and just greater instability in the ice fall. And so everyone was compressed in this just a few day window of favorable weather and that made the crowding much, much worse than it otherwise would have been.
Baker Perry: There were two times that really stood out and impacted our team. One was moving up through the ice fall, going to Camp 2 on our summit rotation as we were working up and we came to two ladders, vertical ladders going up the side of a serac. And there's a line of 60 or 70 people there waiting for them. I'm like, "Whoa!" Yeah and we were there for at least an hour waiting on people. And all it takes is one person who's just not comfortable or not familiar with clipping in and out and just uncomfortable, to bog everything down and that's what happened. And then that was a bit of an omen for what we saw in our summit push too, was we started out in the middle of the night. We made good time for the first couple hours and then encountered the back of a traffic jam again. And we're just moving at a snail's pace.
Baker Perry: That was a major factor in why we couldn't continue to the summit or go a little higher to install that upper weather station. It's just the pace was too slow and what normally would be a 10 or 12 hour round trip for a summit push for people that continued on was turning into a 16, 18, 20 hour day. People were running out of oxygen, suffering frostbite and exhaustion and that definitely contributed to some of the fatalities that were up there. And fortunately our Sherpa leadership team and our group made the decision not to push on. And yeah, we might've been able to make it up, but with the crowds, we would have been severely challenged in doing any science up there and installing a weather station or getting an ice core from higher up. So I fully agree that it was the best decision from a safety perspective.
Lee Ball: What's the plan to return so that you can check on the station, take more samples?
Baker Perry: That's a great question. That's very much in flux. We're watching the stations currently. They have been transmitting, the upper stations, the Balcony and the South Col for the past few months. There've been a few breaks with snow build-up on the solar panels dropping battery voltage. But so far they seem to be working as designed, which is a very positive, encouraging development. The big unknown is what's going to happen when the jet stream moves back. And especially as we get into November, December and January where we're going to probably be seeing 200 mile an hour winds moving through there, and if they survive. So we're not sure what's even going to be left up there at the end of the winter. And that's going to be a factor in the decision making process. We're actively working with colleagues in Nepal, both from the Khumbu Climbing Center in Phortse, on a longer term strategy to maintain and service the stations. And also with the government of Nepal with their Department of Hydrology and Meteorology. So there are a number of options on the table.
Baker Perry: We have the immediate short-term needs just to make sure stations are operational and any immediate needs arise, that somebody is available to go up, if there's a longer term need as well. And so we're trying to work on both of those in conjunction with one another. And obviously, even if something does happen in the next few months with the highest, Camp 2, the Balcony, South Col, nobody's going to be able to go up there. The window would not open until May, till the spring climbing season. There may be some people going up. There's sometimes a few exhibitions that do try to make a fall attempt. But I don't know that we would have a team member that's available to go up. But at the very least we might get some pictures back from people that are going up and that could help inform some of our strategy.
Lee Ball: Did you design the solar panel locations, thinking about maybe the wind would help clear it off during high winds, maybe the sun would help melt any snow that was fixated on the panel?
Baker Perry: Yeah, so we spent a lot of time just considering options and scenarios, and then second guessing ourselves and revisiting things. And what we ultimately decided to do, and this is what I've done in the Andes too, is to have multiple solar panels as opposed to just a single one. And so at both the Balcony, the highest station, and at the South Col, we have one panel that is basically oriented due south but it's still a decent inclination so that snow can shed off of it a little more effectively. And then we have the other panel, more of a southeast orientation. Again, the premise there being that typically we have less cloud cover in the mornings and that morning sun is more effective than the afternoon sun would be with building cloud cover.
Baker Perry: It's been a bit surprising just how light the winds have been in the monsoon. I mean it looks like a pretty tranquil time to be up there. It's cold and temperatures around 0 Fahrenheit at the Upper Station and a little warmer, 10 degrees or so, 5 to 10 degrees at the Lower Station. But it's snowing a lot and with light winds it means that snow doesn't always get cleared off of the panels. And so that's been a bit of a, perhaps surprise just how light the winds are. But they're definitely starting to pick up and that should help clear things.
Lee Ball: We've all heard about changing climate, obviously. And I'm going to ask you a few questions about your experience in South America. But I'm curious about some of the stories that you may have heard from the Sherpas when you were in the Himalayas. And what are people saying on the ground? What's the word on the street? The word on the glacier?
Baker Perry: The word on the street and in the Everest region with the Sherpas is that they've seen profound changes in their lifetimes. Glaciers that used to extend farther down valley are no longer there. Smaller glaciers have disappeared. There's just less snow up on the mountains. And so these are changes that they've seen in their lifetimes and they recognize that this is having impacts on the water resources in the region, on their livelihoods. Even in the town of Phortse where we were based a good part of the spring and where our Sherpa team is from, they were having water supply issues in the month of May. And they said that's not something they've typically had to deal with.
Baker Perry: And I saw a lot of commonalities with the stories that you and I both have heard from Peru. And in both of the Himalayas in this part of Nepal, and in the Andes, climate change is not some abstract idea. It's direct. It's observable and it's something that people are very concerned about. Because it's had direct impacts on their livelihoods, through the water, through their livestock, through their crops and ability to irrigate. And also it's made some of the climbing routes less safe, and that's certainly been a continued source of concern for the Khumbu Icefall. And as more and more of the hanging glaciers on the upper slopes begin to melt out and be impacted by climate change, they're more at risk for collapse. And so that has a direct impact on loss of life for Sherpas and also other climbers that are in the region.
Lee Ball: Baker, you've spent decades now working in South America, studying the tropical glaciers of South America. And you're kind enough to share a lot of contacts and resources with me and multiple trips that I've taken to the Sacred Valley and in and around the Cusco region of Peru. I had never really before thought too much about tropical glaciers. And like many people, when you hear about Machu Picchu, people assume that this giant mountain on top of the world... And what was fascinating to learn for me after visiting that place for the first time was that it was lower than Cusco and it's where the rainforest, the Amazon literally reaches up into the Andes and it's just a fascinating and beautiful place. But you spend your time many thousand meters above Machu Picchu, and could you explain a little bit about tropical glaciers because people don't think about glaciers in the tropics?
Baker Perry: No, it's a weird combination of words. And the reality is, is that if you go to high enough elevations, that temperatures are low enough to support the formation of glaciers. And this is the case from Venezuela, Columbia, down through Ecuador and certainly in through Peru and Bolivia. In fact, Peru has the greatest concentration of tropical glaciers of anywhere in the world. And these are rising right out of the Amazon rainforest in many cases. And so there's this incredible altitudinal gradient and temperature that is evident. Vegetation patterns follow that and it's spectacular to see, as you've been there.
Baker Perry: But the interesting thing about tropical glaciers is that the climatological processes are different than what we see in the middle latitudes and the polar regions. And one of the major differences is that on a tropical glacier in Peru, the summer, which is the warm season, is also when it's snowing and accumulation is occurring. So, there's melting occurring during that period, but there's also accumulation occurring. And so those two seasons coincide, which is very different from the middle attitude and polar regions because the glaciers receive their inputs from snowfall primarily in the winter months. And then in the summer months it really doesn't snow. It may rain some, especially on the glaciers in the Cascades and in the northwest. And that's when you're losing mass. So they're clearly defined seasons and we don't, and that's a major difference with what we see in the tropics.
Baker Perry: And so that points to the huge significance of cloud cover and precipitation. And so that's where a lot of my work has focused the last five years, has been on understanding the atmospheric processes associated with the precipitation formation which is the snow up high, and the cloud cover, and looking at the changes to the onset of the wet season, and the ending of the wet season and how that may be changing over time. And what are some of the atmospheric factors that are influencing it? And then how does that tie into the amount of snow that's falling and accumulating on the glacier surface, and ultimately it's the glacier behavior.
Baker Perry: So they are, they're fascinating. And I think what we recognized both in the tropical glaciers of Peru, and Bolivia in particular, there's some similarities with what we're seeing in the Himalayas in the subtropical glaciers of Nepal, and that they're very sensitive to solar radiation. And so if there's a reduction in precipitation, which is snowfall up high that changes the reflectivity and allows the surface to absorb more solar radiation and that can accelerate glacier retreat. The cloud cover's a very important factor as well. And so because the sun is so high in these parts of the world, the influence of the solar radiation changes in solar radiation and the reflectivity of the surface, which we call albedo, are particularly important, perhaps more important than we see in the higher latitudes.
Lee Ball: So I've experienced where locals have told me that they've noticed a big difference with glacier retreat, but this is an area that you've measured for many, many years now. Can you speak to that a little bit?
Baker Perry: Our team is not made direct measurements of glacier changes. We've worked some with satellite imagery and we've had some students do that over the years, but we've not made direct field-based measurements of the glacier retreat.
Baker Perry: There's one place that we took students... Actually the first study abroad trip that Mike Mayfield and I led back in 1999 to the Andes, went to Laguna Glasiar, this glacial lake at 16,000 feet in Bolivia. And at that time it was this massive glacier coming down into a lake, a huge calving front right there, very healthy. It had retreated some from where it had been in the '80s, we'd noticed with satellite images. I didn't have a chance to go back there until 2017, two years ago. And returning, I was just shocked at what I saw. I mean, these are changes that I was able to see just in my lifetime. The glacier had largely disappeared and had retreated way upslope. What was left was just exposed rock. What had been literally hundreds of feet of ice was not there anymore. To see that at a personal level was pretty sobering.
Baker Perry: Certainly, we were bombarded with all the facts of climate change and the changes, an increase in temperature and the statistics that we see from the scientific community and a lot of that's reported in the media. But this was a little different for me. And I've seen plenty of repeat photos from glacier regions around the world, but this was a relatively short period within my professional lifetime. You know, I guess I'm getting older, but I'm not that old. And to see that was pretty profound.
Lee Ball: Have you noticed the same on some of the approaches to some of the sites in Peru?
Baker Perry: I've been going to Peru pretty consistently in the Cordillera Vilcanota for about 10 years now. And there certainly are some changes that I'm seeing, but it hasn't been quite as dramatic yet. And I think I say "yet." We've done some work with satellite imagery and have identified plenty of glaciers that have retreated and some that have disappeared. And then my close colleague, Anton Simon, who's been working on a project. He has access to these aerial photos from the 1930s from the Smithsonian Expedition that flew looking for lost Incan cities. And they happened to see this enormous mountain range with lots of snow and ice on it. And so they took just a number of high resolution, super high quality photos. And so on the basis of that they may be able to reconstruct the glacier history and create some animations that are just really stunning and sobering too, showing the degree of ice loss going back to the 1930s.
Lee Ball: It must be quite a different world up there. Do you have plans to take students again in 2020?
Baker Perry: In 2020? I don't have immediate plans. Dr. Derek Martin from the Department of Geography and Planning has taken over the study abroad course. He took students this year in 2019, because I was obviously tied up in the Himalayas and he had a fantastic experience and plans to keep that trip going.
Baker Perry: So, my plans are a bit up in the air. There's several opportunities. We have a proposal actually under review right now to install a weather station on top of Asangati, the high peak in the Vilcanota and do some snow sampling. We're also looking at possibilities to go back to Quelccaya and drill a new ice core all the way to bedrock. And so that's in the works for next year. And so-
Lee Ball: How far is that?
Baker Perry: It's, depending on where exactly you are, it could be anywhere from 1 to 200 meters of ice. A year ago I was part of an expedition that had a ground penetrating radar. And so fortunately I have a pretty good ice thickness map and that will be something we'll be looking at. There was a upper core of the firn layer of the old snow that our team from the University of Maine and from the Brazilian Antarctic Institute was able to acquire last year but they were not able to go all the way to bedrock. And so there's some interest in doing that. So I don't know, I think there's a number of opportunities, but no plans to be a part of the study abroad as of now. And I think Dr. Martin is fully capable of taking that over.
Lee Ball: That's great.
Lee Ball: I know that you've made a lot of personal connections and relationships in the Sacred Valley in Peru and also in Bolivia. I know the science, and that inquiry brings you back. Is there another element that keeps bringing you back to that part of the world?
Baker Perry: Absolutely. This is a part of the world that I spent several years of my childhood in. And so when I was seven years-old, my family moved to Peru and lived for several months in Arequipa, which is not far from Cusco, it's there in Southern Peru. And then we moved to Bolivia and lived at 13,000 feet on the Altiplano and I went to school there and we took family outings up as high as 18,000 feet. And so that was a very formative experience. I was the perfect age to soak that up and made connections with my friends and certainly the places, the mountain ranges. And in many respects, when I go back to Peru and Bolivia it does feel like going home to a place that's been very important to me for quite some time.
Baker Perry: And then in the context of the work that we've done with our study abroad and the research projects, we've made these fantastic relationships. Places like Chinchero with our close friends, Roxanna and her family. And then our support staff on the truck and the research expeditions we do. The Crispin family. And then the same sort of close colleagues in Bolivia.
Lee Ball: In Atlanta.
Baker Perry: Atlanta and Cusco, yeah, you all have developed great relationships with them. Our UNSAACC partners, Nilton, Maxwell. It's a big family. And when you learn and study about Andean history and especially the cultural anthropology of the region, these networks of friendship and reciprocity are incredibly important and are essential for the type of work that we're doing. And it truly is, we learn so much from these people and they're incredibly helpful in what we do. There's a deep commitment and understanding and mutual respect, I think for one another.
Lee Ball: So you spent a lot of your childhood in South America, in football, soccer country. But you ended up being a little bit of a basketball star here in the states and you spent some time playing with Duke University and Coach K. And some great players: Jeff Capel, Chris Collins and Ricky Price. I totally remember that team. I'm curious, what do you take away from that experience that really sticks with you today?
Baker Perry: Well I guess, first a correction. I wouldn't use the word "star." I was a bench warmer. You know, and the cheerleader there on the Duke team for one year.
Lee Ball: But you were a star somewhere to be there.
Baker Perry: I played some in Bolivia, actually. So I did play some semi-professional ball there. And those were good memories.
Baker Perry: But no, it was a terrific experience to be part of that Duke team. We weren't national champions or didn't have huge success. I think we got beat in the first round of the NCAA tournament as an eight seed. But it was such a tremendous experience and it was a lifelong dream for me to be part of that program and to be in the midst of the ACC season and with Coach K and such an incredible program.
Baker Perry: And things that I've taken away from that, I mean, Coach K just has such high expectations and just brings incredible energy and intensity to what he does. And that really stood out to me as one item. Another is that he really valued his family and found ways to bring his kids on some of our away games and involve them in what he was doing. And so that is in a sense a bit of a model for me in involving my kids in some of our study abroad activities and some of my field work. And so I really valued that.
Baker Perry: And I've stayed in touch with Coach K over the years and I sent him a note when we got back from Everest and shared some of the accomplishments that our team made. And it's amazing how he's able to find the time to keep up with people and to even provide short responses to notes that he receives. And so he's still this kind of larger than life figure in a sense, even in my own life. He's somebody that I have looked up to and respected over the years.
Lee Ball: Well, thank you so much for sharing that. Thank you for coming into the podcast today and spending your time. You have such a busy schedule and busy doing research, busy teaching and making yourself available to your students. Thank you so much, Baker.
Baker Perry: Well, thank you, Lee. It was a pleasure to be here and I look forward to continuing the conversation.
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