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Climate Change Could Expose Tons of Human Poop Left on Alaskan Glacier

Climbers have abandoned roughly 66 tons of feces on Mount Denali, and it’s just waiting to reemerge.

by Sarah Emerson
Apr 2 2019, 4:36pm

Mount Denali base camp. Image: National Park Service/Kent Miller

There’s a somewhat hokey saying among outdoor enthusiasts that goes, “Take only pictures, leave only footprints,” and while unstated, I assume this applies to hauling your literal crap out, too.

But at Denali National Park in Alaska, few have followed this mantra, abandoning roughly 66 tons of human poop that—because of course it gets worse—may resurface from the frozen landscape partly due to climate change.

That estimate comes from the National Park Service which has been thanklessly tracking the waste jettisoned by climbers in the park. And now, federal scientists expect that glacial melt, a consequence of warming temperatures, could expose troves of shit that have been tossed into the snow as soon as this summer, USA Today reported on Monday.

“The primary focus of waste management policy is the Kahiltna Glacier as that's the glacier that's seen the greatest concentration of climbers. And thus, historical climber poop,” Maureen Gualtieri, a public information officer at Denali National Park, told Motherboard in an email.

Much like Mount Everest which is also littered with human feces, Denali bears foul traces of the more than 1,000 climbers who make the trek each year.

Traditionally, mountaineers relieved themselves, bagged the stuff, and left it in one of two places: atop Kahiltna glacier (home to the popular West Buttress climbing route and whose elevation is 20,013 feet); or down into its crevasses. In 2007, the National Park Service banned people from dumping poop on the glacier’s surface at elevations above 14,200 feet (anything below must be carried down).

At Denali, authorities believed the waste would buried by snow within a year. But as National Park Service glaciologist Michael Loso told USA Today, “We have lost more glacier cover in the Alaskan national parks than there is area in the whole state of Rhode Island.”

Archival photographs of the park’s glaciers over the past 50 to 80 years show that many have “retreated, thinned, or stagnated.” A study published in JGR Atmospheres last year found that Denali’s glaciers are melting at rates not seen within the past four centuries, due to rising temperatures.

As such, Loso has been investigating the problem since 2007, and in a 2012 study found that “this buried waste will eventually be carried by down-glacier flow to the ablation zone where it will melt out at the glacier surface.”

Loso also conducted field studies that detected “fecal indicator bacteria on and downstream of the Kahiltna Glacier,” and suggests that bacteria can indeed survive Denali’s subfreezing temperatures and harsh conditions, posing a health risk for future climbers.

“The waste will emerge at the surface not very different from when it was buried. It will be smushed and have been frozen and be really wet,” Loso told USA Today. “It will be biologically active, so the E. coli that was in the waste when it was buried will be alive and well. We expect it to still smell bad and look bad.”