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Backpacker Magazine – Online Exclusive

New Zealand's Mountains Eroding Fast

Mount Cook, for starters.

by: Ted Alvarez

image: Wikimedia Commons
image: Wikimedia Commons

Like Denali last year, New Zealand's highest peak just got a little shorter.

The U.K.'s Telegraph reports that Mount Cook, previously measured at 12,316 feet, is now just 12,217 feet tall. Scientists believe that the summit lost a significant chunk of rock following an avalanche 23 years ago.

This latest height reduction only underscores a larger erosion trend in the land of Lord of the Rings. A combination of wind, rain, and chemical reactions are whittling away the Southern Alps at least four times faster than any other range in the world – as much as 2.5 mm a year, according to new research in Science.

The Alps also happen to be the fastest-growing mountains in the world, which helps offset the losses. But even a tectonic growth spurt can’t compensate for the biggest shrinkage factor -- precipitation:

Researchers tallied the figure by measuring the concentrations of beryllium-10, an isotope produced naturally when cosmic rays strike rocks at Earth’s surface, in sediments gathered from slopes and riverbeds (image). They also measured the concentration of zirconium in the samples, which helps estimate the rates of various chemical changes in the soil. Together, physical and chemical weathering conspire to bring down mountains—and typically soak up CO2 in the process, but the overall magnitude of this climate-cooling effect has been long debated.


With an average annual precipitation of more than 10 meters in some locales, slopes sport temperate rainforests and shrubby ecosystems that trap soil before it can wash away to the seas, where its ability to scrub CO2 from the air would cease. In many of the areas previously studied elsewhere in the world, some of them relatively arid, erosion sweeps away soil quickly—there, as a general rule, the steeper the slopes, the less time soil sticks around. The longer the soil stays in place, the more time there is for the soil to chemically interact with the atmosphere. The new results may help scientists better assess how episodes of mountain-building deep in Earth’s past have affected climate over the long term.

So should you get a new credit card or three and jump on a plane to Kiwi paradise post-haste? Well, according to our back-of-the-napkin calculations, at that rate, Mt. Cook will erode completely in … let’s see … carry the three … 1.5 million years. OK, in that case, maybe hold off on breaking the bank.

Read more: Telegraph / Science

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