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Science at 15,000 Feet

Originally published on Medill News Service, Climate Change.

A team of geologists extract a sample from a boulder on a glacial moraine near Litang, China.

Less than 2 percent of the world's population lives above 8,200 feet, and we are almost doubling that baseline elevation, for science.

This field season, scientists from the University of Maine, in a collaboration with the Institute of Earth Environment of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, have set their sights high on geological field sites on the Tibetan plateau to gain insight into our planet's climate history. I am along for the ride to document this important research.

Fieldwork can be grueling—long days, heavy packs, inclement weather—and at this elevation, the lack of oxygen can be stifling.

We passed the subalpine zone days ago on our ascent from Kangding to Litang; it was a sudden rise out of the tree line as we wound up the valley road, the air too thin for the tall Chinese pines.

At over 13,000 feet, the air pressure in Litang is 39 percent less than it is at sea level, meaning less oxygen available to saturate the body’s hemoglobin, which carries oxygen from our lungs to our body’s tissues.

This interruption of homeostasis causes the body to find ways to compensate, and can take days, or even weeks, for it to acclimate. The heart rate increases, as does respiration, while hunger can seemingly disappear as your body puts digestion on a backburner as it deals with the cellular challenge it is facing. If the body cannot adapt, it can be fatal.

“I’m actually doing better than I expected,” said Jessica Stevens, an environmental science teacher from Gary Comer College Prep High School in Chicago, who is assisting in the field. “I have to stop every so often and [blows] shove out all the carbon dioxide. The problem I’m having more is the side effect of our altitude medication,” said Stevens.

Stevens, as well as many others in the group, have reported a tingling sensation in their limbs, and even their faces, as a result of taking Acetazolamide. Acetazolamide, more commonly known as Diamox, is a medication that helps the body acclimate and can ward off acute mountain sickness, or AMS.

What makes this science worth the journey above the clouds?

“Well, it’s of great scientific interest. It’s a site that captures a remarkable period in Earth’s history that’s trying to tell us about how the climate system works,” said Aaron Putnam, principal researcher from the University of Maine.

The Tibetan plateau is in a unique location, where it receives energy in the air masses that come off of the Indo-Pacific region—the warmest waters on Earth—which Putnam calls the planet’s “heat engine”: “The reason we came here is because it is one of the closest places you can get to that warm pool, and also find glaciers and spectacular records in the landscape.” The morphology of the valleys act as a visual timeline, indicating the progression and recession of glaciers through the ice ages by leaving behind carved out ridges, called moraines.

While the research team has acclimated well this past week in Litang, tomorrow we all face a new challenge. We are continuing our ascent north of Batang, to an elevation of over 15,000 feet—nearly reaching the same altitude as the Mount Everest basecamp. At that elevation, oxygen is at half the concentration as it is at sea level.

“We have several plans in order in case someone becomes ill from the altitude, but I think everyone is adjusting well,” said Putnam, “I spent a semester in Iceland when I was in college […] and they had a saying: ‘There is no such thing as bad weather, only being poorly prepared.’ […] For the most part if you come prepared you can enjoy yourself, and do good science. Even with the wide range of conditions we can experience out here.”

Onwards and upwards.

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