It’s more than a little disconcerting to wake every hour or so, gasping for air, suffocating.
It happened to me during a field season in southern Tibet camped at about 5400 metres above sea level. With my normal sleep breathing patterns, I just couldn’t get enough oxygen.
We were working in an area known as the Kampa dome, some 50 kilometres north of the border with India and about 150 kilometres east of Mount Everest.
The Kampa dome is a sort of giant geological “blister”. The dome, which is about 25 kilometres across, comprises a core of rocks originating deep within the Tibetan crust now exposed beneath a carapace of much shallower rocks.
Kampa is just one of a number of domes distributed in a belt along the southern boundary of Tibet, not far north of the Himalaya. These domes attract the attention of geologists interested in what’s going on deep under Tibet and in the sequence of events that raised the plateau over the last 50 million years or so.
And that is not just of geological interest. The Tibetan plateau is so large, and so high, that it influences the global pattern of atmospheric circulation. So the raising of Tibet has had a profound impact on the evolution of the modern climate system. It is one of the elements in the transition from the green-house world of the dinosaur era to the ice-house world in which our own species has evolved.
Our work in Kampa was part of a broader program investigating the magnitude of the forces that drive tectonic plate motion. Amongst other things, getting a handle on those forces is important for understanding what limits the heights of our great mountain ranges such as the Himalaya.
The particular issue that motivated our interest in Kampa was the idea that weak rocks heated beneath Tibet were being, or had been, squeezed outwards to the south in a giant pincer movement by the ongoing convergence between the Indian and Asian plates. The idea that the rocks exposed in Kampa, as well as in the high Himalaya, are a kind of geological “toothpaste” is quite a departure from the conventional view that the mountain system has been created by stacking of thrust sheets one on top of the other.
One of the master faults lying above this purported channel of extruded rock is exposed high up in the face of Everest beneath a limestone that was deposited immediately prior to the raising of Tibet. The southern Tibetan domes make for rather easier and less dangerous field work than the face of Everest.
More than any other, mountain landscapes manifest the awesome power of our restless planet. In the rarefied atmosphere high up in the Kampa, the sense of awe was greatly magnified, especially with the Himalaya towering above the horizon.
The amount of energy involved in building these mountains, in lifting those 50 million year old limestones out of the sea to now sit high up the slopes of Everest, is simply mind-boggling, or so you would think.
To give you a sense, let’s calculate it.
Even though it involves some big numbers, the calculation is really quite trivial. We simply multiply the area of the plateau (about 2.5 million square kilometres) by the work done against gravity. To lift a column of the crust one square metre in area by 4-5 kilometres takes about 4 trillion joules.
Harmonising units, and we get our estimate of the work done against gravity in raising Tibet - about 10 yottajoules (think “10” followed by 24 zeros).
The trouble with big numbers such as these, and one reason they feel so daunting, is we have no natural reference frame to make comparisons.
So let’s compare it to the energy we humans consume to run our daily lives. We could ask how many years would it take to raise Tibet if we put all human energy consumption to work.
In its Statistical review of world energy BP estimated the human primary energy consumption in 2015 at 550 exajoules (that is 550 followed by 18 zeros). At that rate, and neglecting inefficiencies, it would take about 20,000 years to raise Tibet.
While that’s a long time, it’s far less than than the 50 million years that nature took to raise Tibet.
In fact, the rate we consume energy is around 2000 times greater than the 10 gigawatt rate nature has been storing it in the raising of Tibet.
Here in Victoria, with a population at about 6 million, we consume electrical power at a rate of about 5 gigawatts. Making that electricity is only about 30% efficient, and so the burning of coal releases heat at a rate of about 15 gigawatts.
We use energy at a rate, quite literally, that could make mountains move.
Now that is something I think really is mind-boggling.
We were guided in our work in the Kampa in 2004 by local herders. It’s hard to imagine more hardy folk. While communication from Tibetan to Chinese to English and back again meant many nuances were missed, it was a special experience. It seemed our guides hadn’t had much to do with westerners before, and we were quite a source of amusement for them. Indeed, it seemed to me there was a very real sense of fun in the way they went about their daily life on the top of world.
A particular highlight was their invitation, on our arrival, to join for some authentic yak’s butter tea. At these heights with little oxygen, not much fuel and with everything just a little damp, cooking is challenging. Burning damp goat dung in the close environment of a yurt produces an awful lot of foul smelling, acrid smoke, but not much heat. I didn’t much enjoy the taste of the rancid butter either. While the invitation to join with our Tibetan hosts in their summer home remains one of my most treasured experiences, it was with some personal relief that I declined a second “cuppa”, doubting I could hold any more down.
Despite it’s remoteness, this is a region in transition, for many reasons. One of my enduring memories of the Kampa is captured in the photo below, showing the alarming degradation of the thin soils that mantle these recently de-glaciated landscapes.
The story of what we are doing to soils on this planet is an issue of immense importance, for all people.
Authors: The Conversation Contributor