Situated 16,600 feet above sea level and neighboring the Mount Everest base camp in Nepal, the Pyramid International Laboratory/Observatory is one of the world’s oldest and most prolific high-altitude research facilities. But it’s falling apart.
The tragic period for the Pyramid began in the early 2010s, when the National Research Council of Italy (CNR) cut its funding short. As a result, a lot of ongoing research missions had to be suspended, and on-site researchers and maintenance staff had to leave. “It’s already been almost eight years since the funding ceased, and many [pieces of] lab equipment have turned completely useless,” says Kaji Bista, manager of the lab—and now its sole maintenance staff.
Once a school teacher with a degree in economics, Bista may seem like a misfit to run a research facility. But he has been the only on-site employee at the Pyramid for nearly a decade. Each morning he rounds the nearby meteorological stations, tracking sensor data and their transmission, as well as doing necessary maintenance if needed. “Working alone in this terrain is joyful at times, yet often gets lonesome as well,” he says.
The lab’s location—at a high altitude and low latitude—makes it crucial to research on everything from climate change and biodiversity to high-altitude physiology and the effects of pollution, scientists say. After CNR pulled its funding from the lab in 2014, however, a few founding members and collaborating institutes donated enough to pay for Bista’s salary and maintenance of the equipment to keep up with bare-bones monitoring of the environment. If the lab doesn’t receive an influx of funds soon, even those projects will not be sustainable, Bista says.
For instance, scientists say that 30 years of data is the minimum requirement to assess the impacts of climate change over any area. “In 2024 we will have 30 years of data on weather stations. The next few years are very crucial for us,” says Gian Pietro Verza, an unpaid senior member of the Pyramid’s technical staff, who still trains Bista for the facility’s general maintenance. Verza says the Pyramid is the longest running weather station in the Himalayas, and its data are crucial for the assessment of climate change in this part of the world.
It seems, the committee running the lab is pushing to keep it alive at least until that date. But a question has to be addressed: What happens after that? “We have to find a long-term solution now,” Verza says.
Science at the Top of the World
The Pyramid got its start in 1986, when an American expedition concluded that K2 was the world’s tallest mountain. Italian geologist and cartographer Ardito Desio and mountaineer Agostino da Polenza were doubtful of that claim. They embarked on a mission to measure the height of both K2 and Mount Everest using the latest GPS technology at the time with funding from CNR. The project not only reestablished Everest as the tallest mountain but also led to the establishment of the Ev-K2-CNR Committee, an organization with the goal of enhancing high-altitude research activities that founded the Pyramid.
“The Italians actually [modified] the mission to establish a world-class research facility,” says Dibas Shrestha, a meteorologist at Tribhuvan University in Nepal, who was involved with the Pyramid for several research expeditions between 2013 and 2016. “You don’t go about finding such facilities everywhere, at least not across the Himalayas.”
And it’s clear why a lab at this spot would be valuable: The terrain is extreme and relatively undisturbed, which is ideal for the observation of how ecosystems and biogeochemical cycles react under the influence of changing environmental factors such as increasing temperature, human disturbance and pollution. Unlike high-latitude polar regions, which are more difficult to access, the Himalayas offer “high-altitude sensitive and extreme landscapes in low latitude,” says Sudeep Thakuri, a climate scientist at Mid-West University in Nepal. The region features quick variations in altitude, weather and geology. Thus, researchers can complete expeditions in this part of the world in less time and with less effort and financial resources, compared with what is needed up in the Arctic or down in Antarctica. “So it could be considered as a reference site for global modeling and to generate data that could be used for similar places and settings,” Thakuri says.
From the early 1990s to the early 2000s, Ev-K2-CNR supported several multidisciplinary studies and expeditions: It established high-altitude seismic stations, carried out several assessments on climate change, worked on hydrologic modeling to predict precipitation and river discharge, launched various physiological investigations for high-altitude survival, established dedicated in situ weather-station-calibration sites, registered the facility as a global atmospheric watch station for pollution monitoring and even helped to launch several biodiversity research and conservation projects. The lab has been directly involved in 520 scientific missions collaborating with more than 220 researchers from 143 different institutions.
But at present, the Pyramid is a skeleton of its former self. CNR probably interrupted its funding because it had other spending priorities and a need to cover its own deficits, Verza says. With almost no workforce, Ev-K2-CNR has struggled to operate the observatory.
“We couldn’t replace filters for pollution monitoring. And there was no point in collecting samples as we couldn’t store or ship them for further assessments,” Bista says. Ev-K2-CNR had also partnered with the Nepal Academy of Science and Technology, but this small, autonomous governmental research body couldn’t fund an entire high-altitude international research station.
The Hope Going Forward
There is no denying the potential of the Pyramid, says Paul Mayewski, a glaciologist at the University of Maine, because climate change and its impacts are different in different parts of the world. Studies in recent years have also confirmed that high mountains are more vulnerable to heating effects than the lowlands, and scientists need more research assessments to monitor these changes in places like the Himalayas.
“High-mountain science stations are essential if we are to understand climate and ecosystem variability,” Mayewski adds. “They can help in carrying out several-week-long expeditions and research missions that need frequent sampling. These research stations can be a focal point not only for young scholars but also for local people to participate in scientific discovery close to their homes.”
Glaciers in the Himalayas supply freshwater to almost two billion people. And climate change, which can speed up and increase the meltwater flowing downhill, has a direct impact on water discharge and river flow patterns. These, in turn, play a role in natural disasters. For instance, in 2013 a sudden flash flood from the Chorabari Glacier ravaged Kedarnath, India—home to an ancient temple—and other parts of the northern state of Uttarakhand, killing nearly 6,000 people. “Any kind of lower-belt, ground-level management, planning and mitigation measures without considering the changes up in the highland is irrelevant. So having a high-altitude research facility like the Pyramid is crucial,” Shrestha says.
The facility can also serve as a valuable base for carrying out physiological and medical research for mountaineers, porters and local communities. “As the mountain air is getting hotter, humid and polluted, it can have a significant impact upon mountaineers’ respiratory and cardiac condition,” says Annalisa Cogo, a pulmonologist at the University of Ferrara in Italy.
Cogo’s team previously worked at the Pyramid and found that, with proper training, even climbers with asthma can travel up to about 16,500 feet without much danger to their breathing. “With the help of weeks of prior respiratory training, an individual can actually overcome the danger of hypoxia and acute altitude sickness,” she says.
As for the future of the Pyramid, Bista is optimistic about CNR resuming its funding. Many are still skeptical about the facility reopening, however, because it has remained stagnant for way too long. It remains to be seen how bureaucratic decision-making will come into play: there has been a false start to reopening the lab in the past.
Regardless, “the Pyramid wants to continue activity as an observatory,” Bista says. “The lab is ready to host research groups.” But if the funding doesn’t come through, “this would be a tragic end to one of the oldest high-altitude research facilities in the Himalayas,” he adds.
The story was supported in part by Himalayan Climate Boot Camp 2022.