Mount Everest preserved frozen sneezes for centuries: study

Strange but true

March 15, 2023 | 13:12

There is no mountain high enough – to stop germs from getting to you.

Humans aren’t the only organisms to conquer the world’s highest mountain: an analysis of soil samples taken from Mount Everest revealed that our coughs and sneezes are preserved in the mountain’s ice for hundreds of years. The alarming results were published recently in the interdisciplinary journal “Arctic, Antarctic and Alpine Research.”

“There is a human signature frozen in the microbiome of Everest, even at that altitude,” said Steven Schmidt, lead author and microbial ecologist at the University of Colorado Boulder, in a press release. “If someone blew their nose or coughed at all, that’s the kind of thing that can show up.”

Scientists had harvested the mountaineering microbes during the 2019 National Geographic and Rolex Perpetual Planet expedition to Everest, which is the world’s highest peak at 29,031 feet above sea level. These veritable sneezes were collected from the South Col, a 26,000-foot hole where mountaineers stop before attempting to reach the roof of the world.

Not even the world’s highest mountain is safe from our cooties.
AFP via Getty Images

Scientists then sequenced the genetic material in the flu print, marking the first time the technology had been used to analyze soil samples from such a high altitude. Using this method, the researchers were able to identify strains of Staphylococcus and Streptococcus bacteria commonly found in our skin and mouth.

Scientists were amazed that organisms associated with wet, humid environments could potentially survive for centuries in cold, dry and other harsh conditions like a microbial Frosé. In other words, it was a case of a cold catching a cold.

Scientists suspect that it was humans who probably gave Everest cooties. In fact, most of the samples were collected about 558 feet away from where hundreds of sneezing, sniffling mountaineers stop each year before attempting to summit the world’s tallest peak, Science Alert reported.

Sherpas and team expedition members prepare a ritual to pay respect to Mount Everest at Everest Base Camp in Solukhumbu District, Nepal in May 2021.
AFP via Getty Images
The summit of Mount Everest seen from a helicopter.
AFP via Getty Images

The team theorized in the study that the South Col and other high-elevation settings could serve as “freeze collection sites” for “human-borne pollutants that may never leave once they arrive.”

“We predict that if we sample the more human-exploited areas of the mountain, we may find even more microbial evidence of human impact on the environment,” the researchers added. Those numbers could potentially rise amid the record-setting number of climbers returning to Everest in the post-pandemic era.

Alpine pilgrimages are not the only factors in the rise of Mount Everest. Scientists predict that previously dormant bacteria may become more active in the future due to the mountain’s warming air temperatures, which are increasing by an average of 0.33C per year. decade.

Climbers climb Mount Everest’s south face.
AFP via Getty Images

While the highest spread of bacteria should not adversely affect Everest, the phenomenon demonstrates the potential of certain microbes to thrive in inhospitable conditions.

When extrapolated to an even larger scale, the results could potentially have terrifying, “War Of The Worlds”-esque implications for our plans to colonize space.

“We may find life on other planets and cold moons,” Schmidt said. “We’ll have to be careful to make sure we don’t contaminate them with our own.”

Mountaineers hike along the Khumbu Glacier as a helicopter flies near Everest Base Camp in Solukhumbu District, Nepal.
AFP via Getty Images

This is not the first time that human pathogens have been found in unlikely places.

In a phenomenon seemingly ripped from a Sci-Fi horror movie, French scientists revived a “zombie virus” that had been trapped beneath a frozen Siberian lake for a record 50,000 years.

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