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The Khumbu Icefall on Mount Everest is perhaps the most well-known and notoriously dangerous glacial feature on the planet. In a fresh post on the Glacier Hub blog, The Earth Institute’s Ben Orlove, writing with anthropologist Pasang Yangjee Sherpa of Penn State, recounts a recent workshop held in Kathmandu to address the issues raised by the tragic deaths on the icefall last spring of 16 Nepalese guides who were preparing the trail for this year’s climbing expeditions.

The Khumbu Icefall is a notoriously dangerous part of Mount Everest. Sixteen Nepalese guides died here on April 18 in one of the worst accidents in the mountain’s history. Photo: credit: Mahatma4711

The “Participatory Workshop on Roles, Responsibilities & Rights of Mountaineering Workers,” held Aug. 29-30, “represents a significant change in the debates about climbing expeditions on Mount Everest, with significance across the Himalayas and beyond,” Orlove writes.

The status of the local workers who provide the support system necessary for climbing Everest is just one among many issues arising from swelling number of people seeking to stand atop the world’s highest peak. Is the climbing system sustainable? Hundreds make the attempt each year, many with no mountaineering experience. They overcrowd climbing routes and leave behind an estimated 50 tons of trash. Even crime has become a problem on the mountain, documented in Michael Kodas’ 2008 book, “High Crimes: The Fate of Everest in an Age of Greed.”

But, the expeditions also provide a poor country with substantial revenue. In recent years volunteers have mounted clean-up expeditions up the mountain. The government now requires climbers to descend with at least 18 pounds of trash, estimated as the amount a climber might otherwise leave behind.

The April 18 accident occurred at the Khumbu Icefall at the beginning of the annual climbing season, and eventually led to the cancellation of the year’s planned expeditions.

The icefall “goes over an area in which a glacier descends a cliff so steep that the ice cannot flow smoothly, but rather becomes divided by criss-crossing crevasses into segments, many as large as big houses, which can break off and come crashing down,” the authors write. “In essence, an icefall is to a glacier what a waterfall is to a liquid river. Everest contains many other challenges to climbers, including thin air, long ascents and changeable weather, but this icefall is particularly treacherous.

“Only 13 of the bodies were recovered before weather conditions caused the cancellation of the search for the others. The guides were predominantly Sherpa, members of a Himalayan ethnic group with longstanding ties to the mountain, who have provided the core guides since the earliest expeditions of the 1920s.

“Some were offended that the government offered only scanty compensation to the families of the victims, barely enough to pay for the funerals. … The government lobbied to make sure that the climbing season—and the flow of valuable foreign revenue that it brings—would continue. In sum, the incident revealed once again the strong economic and cultural divisions that have long plagued the climbing expeditions, in which wealthy foreigners make large payments to the Nepalese government and to climbing firms, while the local guides, who face life-threatening risks as they traverse the dangerous terrain year after year, receive low pay.”

The meeting tried to address some those grievances. But, the authors say, “The meeting was in some ways inconclusive. A government official remarked, ‘Like lovers who can’t speak what is in their heart, we aren’t open in discussions and regret it once we go home.’ However, there were some positive outcomes.”

To read the full story, visit the Glacier Hub website.

The Earth Institute is made up of more than 30 research centers and over 850 scientists, postdoctoral fellows, staff and students. To learn more about the Earth Institute’s education programs such as the MPA in Environmental Science and Policy or the MS in Sustainability Management, click here.

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The steady loss of coral reefs in the Caribbean could be partially reversed by taking a number of relatively simple steps, including stronger measures to protect the region’s parrotfish, according to a new study.

Parrotfish are the co-creators of the reef. They feed on parts of the reef where algae threatens to overpower the reef. They harvest the algae and in the process ingest dead coral limestone which they pass as "coral sand." Photo credit:
waywuwei/ Flickr

In a review of trends in Caribbean coral reefs from 1970 to 2012, the Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network said that live coral only makes up about 17 percent of the region’s reef surfaces today. If present trends continue, the study said, coral reefs in the Caribbean will “virtually disappear within a few decades” because of foreign pathogens, algae invasions, pollution from tourism development, overfishing and warming waters.

A key step in halting the decline is protecting parrotfish, which eat the algae that have been smothering coral reefs. The study said that conservation measures, such as banning fish traps, have helped populations of parrotfish rebound in some parts of the Caribbean, including Belize and the Bahamas.

Could playing video games help people understand and address global sustainability issues such as pollution, drought or climate change? At least two researchers believe so, outlining their argument in a concept paper published in the journal First Monday.

Video games have the potential to educate the public and encourage development of creative solutions to social, economic and environmental problems, said Oregon State University’s Shawna Kelly, one of the two authors of the article.

An OSU researcher believes that video games could educate the public and encourage development of creative solutions to environmental problems. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

“Video games encourage creative and strategic thinking, which could help people make sense of complex problems,” said Kelly, who teaches new media communications in the School of Arts and Communication at Oregon State’s College of Liberal Arts.

“Entertainment has always been a space for exposing people to new ideas,” Kelly said. “Using video games, it’s possible to introduce sustainability concepts to the mass public in a way that’s not pedantic, that’s not educational. Instead, it could be fun and it could be challenging.”

Kelly wrote the paper with Bonnie Nardi, an anthropologist with University of California, Irvine's Department of Informatics, who studies sustainability, collapse-preparedness and information technology. 

Kelly and Nardi identified four key areas in which video games could support sustainable practices. The areas are:

1. Shift away from growth as the end goal of a game. Uncontrollable growth is unsustainable and asks little of players’ imaginations.

2. Emphasize scavenging instead of combat to collect resources. Encourage players to interact with their environment in creative ways instead of simply looking for targets.

3. Offer complex avenues for social interaction. Move beyond “us versus them” and focus on other types of social collaborations.

4. Encourage strategizing with resources such as scenarios that incorporate long-term consequences and interdependencies of resource use.

Some video games already are using some of the elements Kelly and Nardi recommend. Economics-based games such as EVE Online challenge players to strategize between their short-term personal resource demands and the long-term needs of a larger group of players, their corporation. DayZ is a combat simulation game that requires players to scavenge for resources and work with other players, deciding on their own which players are friends and which are enemies.

Those are the kinds of game mechanics that make video games fun and challenging, but those mechanics also could be used to encourage players to think about real problems related to sustainability, Kelly said.

The culture of video gaming rewards people for solving problems and coming up with unique solutions. There is a common interest and connection among players, and knowledge is easily shared via game-specific wikis, message boards, instant messaging and more, Kelly pointed out.

“There’s a huge set of people out there who love to problem-solve,” she said. “Why not harness that power that is already there?”

That doesn’t mean someone should go out and develop The Sustainability Game, Kelly said. While video games have proven to be a good educational tool, there is a sense that those who play video games for entertainment don’t want forced educational components, she said.

“The attitude is ‘don’t make me learn something,’ ” Kelly said. “Instead, make the problems accessible to the gaming community and see what emerges.”

Kelly plans to continue exploring the relationship between video games and sustainability through additional research supported by OSU’s New Media Communications department. She’s planning to conduct a systematic survey of the use of sustainability concepts in current video games during the 2014-15 school year undergraduate student research assistants and resources from New Media Communications.