If mountain climbers crap in the Alaska wilderness, does anyone notice?
Only if the news leaks out. Then in the brave, new world of super-hyped jour-no-lism, look out.
The mountain in question, for those who haven’t already guessed, is 20,310-foot Mount Denali, the tallest peak in North America.
“The warming of the Arctic over the past decades have (sic) begun to thaw the frozen latrines, which now have the potential to form a massive river of human waste and glacial melt” that will soon flow down the slopes of the mountain, Yahoo News reported.
Embedded in the story is a video with a woman explaining how this Arctic warming is also affecting Mount Everest, the tallest mountain on the planet.
“Now this is where they’re finding, get this, dead bodies turning up,” she reveals. “Could this be blamed on climate change with melting glaciers. Absolutely could be.”
It might also have something to do with thin air and cold contributing to the deaths of so many climbers on Everest, but oh well.
As an Alaska glaciologist explained, it’s all basically nuts, but Yahoo News wasn’t the only news organization taking a ride on the Denali river of shit.
Some mountain climbers do tend to be a little full of shit, but who would have guessed this:
‘The National Park Service is having to prepare for an avalanche of human poop as the icy surface of Mount Denali melts and exposes 60 tonnes (66 tons) of excrement left by generations of climbers,” reported Rosie McCall at IFL Science.
This might look a lot like fake news, but it’s simply news done like shit.
The icy surface of Mount Denali isn’t melting much more than it normally does, and none of this has much of anything to do with Arctic warming. But there are tons of crap buried in the Kahiltna Glacier, just as there are tons of crap from Alaska’s largest city constantly flowing into the waters of Cook Inlet.
Anchorage’s sewage treatment facility is capable of daily pumping 58 million gallons of ground up crap into the Inlet. Given that a gallon of water weighs 8.34 pounds, that’s about 484 million pounds of crap per day, but it’s liquified so figure the actual amount of crap in the stream is a fraction of that.
Say maybe a 10 million pounds per day or 5,000 tons or more than three orders of magnitude more crap per day than has accumulated in Kahiltna Glacier in the last 60-plus years.
None of which is meant to suggest that it’s a great thing that the residents of Alaska’s biggest city are full of shit and dump it largely untreated into the Inlet, a fact which has angered the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). It has called on Anchorage to clean up its crap.
The NRDC tried to get the Environmental Protection Agency to force Anchorage to do so in 2015 because “the discharge of primary effluent from the Asplund Sewage Plant poses an unacceptable risk to the survival of critically endangered Cook Inlet beluga whales.”
Anchorage, the organization noted, “provides only primary wastewater treatment procedures, including screening, grit removal, sedimentation, skimming, and chlorination. Secondary treatment procedures – which the Asplund Sewage Plant does not provide – include more sophisticated biological procedures such as attached growth processes or suspended growth processes, which remove a higher amount of the organic matter in wastewater.”
The EPA concluded Anchorage was doing enough in a world where all animals crap. It’s natural. The average person dumps 14 to 17 ounces of it per day, according to Live Science. Climbers a little less, according to the Park Service,, which pegs their deposition at about three-tenths of a pound per day.
So the math would put the estimated 66 ton accumulation on Denali at about what a community of 425 to 1,200 people would produce in a year. Whether this is a mountain of shit, you can decide.
That said, it is unlikely to become either an avalanche or flood because of the way in which it is deposited in the glacier and expected to emerge from the glacier. Scientists once thought it would all end up being ground to nothing over time.
Former Alaska Pacific University professor Michael Loso and colleagues altered that thinking after completing a 2012 study that modeled what happens to the crap dropped into the latrine at Kahiltna base camp or bagged and thrown into crevasses at higher elevations.
“The majority of waste generated on Kahiltna Glacier ends up encased within accumulating snow and ice and poses no immediate threat to West Buttress climbers,” they wrote.
Once encased, however, it is subject to little stress within the glacier and basically moves downhill as a block of crap within the flow of snow and ice. The scientists projected the first of it will emerge “approximately 30 kilometers (18.6 miles) downstream of the burial site in less than 15 years for the case of waste buried at Camp 1 in 1954.”
Whether anyone will be able to find that 1954 crap only time will tell. In the expected area of emergence, the glacier is about a mile wide and heavily creased, and in 1954, only 13 people were reported to be on the mountain making deposits.
Trying to find what little fecal matter they deposited could be sort of like looking for a turd in an icefall.
The great flood
Given the projections in the study, a successful hunt for remnant crap might have to wait another 20 years or so. By 1974, 282 climbers were reported on the mountain and by 1976, the number had risen to 508, making for lots more turdets to track.
The glaciologists studying this stinky issue in 2102 didn’t think this volume of crap a major problem.
“Whether NPS should change its existing waste management policy is not immediately obvious,” they wrote. “The likely alternative—some sort of pack-out policy—could have significant costs. These might include higher rates of climber noncompliance, the need for increased education and enforcement programs, and the possibly substantial expense, carbon footprint, and safety hazard associated with increased air traffic hauling collected waste off the mountain. A new management policy requires careful consideration of those costs.”
It is apparently a decision the Park Service made last year to begin collecting all crap to haul it off the mountain, rather than telling climbers to throw it in crevasses, that triggered the news interest in the supposed flood of shit that the federal agency has been doing a good job of controlling for more than a decade.
By 2012, climbers were already used to crapping in buckets and hauling their waste up and down the mountain to Park Service designated deposition sites.
“Beginning in 2007, removal of human waste via Clean Mountain Cans (CMCs) became mandatory above the 14,200-foot Camp , as well as near the airstrip at Base Camp (7,200 feet),” the agency notes in a report on Tracking Human Waste on Denali. “Use of these CMCs, with biodegradable bag liners, has radically improved sanitation at the 17,200-foot High Camp. However, most bags of human waste collected in CMCs at all elevations—including at 14,200-foot Camp, where climbers spend the majority of their time acclimatizing and waiting for good weather—are thrown into crevasses between Base Camp and 14,200-foot Camp.”
Health issues drove the original move to CMCs. With the water only available by melting snow and with more than 1,000 climbers per year using the West Buttress of the mountain, making sure to avoid the brown snow when making water became an issue.
The human waste always disappeared over winter, however.
“Because the West Buttress climbing route is located in the accumulation zone of the Kahiltna Glacier,”the Park report notes, “crevassed waste will be buried the next winter and ever more deeply each successive year. However, each year the glacier flows and slowly carries the waste downhill towards the ablation zone, where it will eventually, inevitably, melt out at the glacier surface.”
Loso expects the eventual melt out to look a lot like what Anchorage sees every spring when the winters accumulation of dog crap begins to emerge from the winter snows. The then exposed crap will naturally degrade.
While Americans think of human waste as pollution, the Chinese have long used it as manure to fertilize their crop lands. There are, however, health risks associated with that practice, the greatest coming from fecal coliform bacteria. The bacteria are found in the intestines of most warm-blooded animals.
It was a bacteria of that family – E. coli – that contaminated Romaine lettuce that sickened 32 people in 11 states last fall sparking a lettuce recall and radically reducing the consumption of Caesar salads for a time.
Park scientists have reported finding “trace levels of fecal contamination…in the waters of the Kahiltna River—but at levels that are still within Alaska state water quality standards.”
“E. coli and other fecal bacteria were able to survive exposure to the cold and ultraviolet radiation in the four microenvironments tested,” the added. “These findings strongly suggest that despite the massive size of the Kahiltna Glacier, human waste encased in the ice on the climbing route remains biologically active, interacts with glacial meltwater, and is already making its way into the downstream watershed.”
That downstream watershed is, however, a long way from anywhere. The Kahiltna river drains into the much bigger Yentna River downstream from the small community of Skwnetna. The Yentna drains into the much bigger Susitna River west of Wasilla.
The Yentna River corridor is littered with remote cabins with outhouses and people crapping who knows where, which would likely overwhelm any E. coli contribution from the Kahiltna.
But who cares about that? Reporting a “thawing river of human waste” invading Alaska has a whole lot more lot click appeal on the internet than the mundane reality.
Correction: An early version of this story miscalculated the poundage of crap coming out of the Anchorage wastewater plant.