Nature & Outdoors

A group of App State students participated in a study abroad program in Peru in 2023, which was led by Dr. Baker Perry, pictured second from right in the back row. They are pictured at Machu Picchu. Photo submitted

Reaching New Heights in Climate Science
App State professor Baker Perry scales world’s tallest mountains as National Geographic Explorer

By Brian Miller

Dr. Baker Perry, a National Geographic Explorer and professor in Appalachian State University’s Department of Geography and Planning, has taken climate research to new heights—literally.

Over the past several years, Perry has helped to lead the installations of some of the highest weather stations in the world, from the Tupungato volcano in Chile, to the peak of Nevado Ausangate in Peru, to the world’s tallest mountain, Mount Everest, in Nepal.

It all started in 2019, when Perry and a National Geographic Society team scaled Mount Everest to carry out groundbreaking research in biology, glaciology, geology, mapping and meteorology—all of which are critical to understanding environmental changes and their impacts. The trip was part of the National Geographic and Rolex Perpetual Planet Everest Expedition.

Further building upon that expedition with return trips to Mount Everest in 2022 and 2023, Perry, his colleagues and a group of elite climbing Sherpas have now successfully installed and maintained five weather stations on Mount Everest, ranging in elevation from 12,500 feet at Phortse to 28,904 feet at Bishop Rock—the highest weather station in the world.

“There’s so much snow and ice that’s found at these high elevations, and they serve as critical water towers that sustain communities downstream,” said Perry. “We know the climate is changing, the glaciers are retreating and the water is diminishing, but we don’t fully understand the processes that are driving those changes. Now we have tools up there to really observe, study and investigate the processes and make better projections for future water resource availability.” 

The weather stations offer real-time wind, temperature and precipitation measurements that not only serve to provide critical climate data but also offer more accurate weather updates to climbers to improve their safety and help them plan ahead.

Other weather stations installed by National Geographic Society teams—through expeditions led by Perry—include a station installed in 2021 near the summit of the Tupungato volcano in Chile, just above 21,000 feet in elevation, and a station installed in 2022 at the highest peak of Nevado Ausangate in the tropical Andes of Peru, just below 21,000 feet in elevation. The trip to Peru was part of the National Geographic and Rolex Perpetual Planet Amazon Expedition.

“Before 2019 there was only one weather station in the world above 19,000 feet,” said Perry. “Our expeditions on Everest and the Andes have already made huge strides in filling some of the voids and really advancing what we know about how glaciers and snow are responding to the climate.”

All of Perry’s expeditions were made possible by the National Geographic Society and Rolex Perpetual Planet Expeditions program.

“National Geographic Society is committed to advancing science and the scientists who are gathering new data about our planet’s most vulnerable yet understudied high-alpine environments,” said Nicole Alexiev, vice president of science and innovation programs at National Geographic Society. “We are thrilled to have a consistent partner in Explorer and climate scientist Baker Perry, whose expertise has introduced groundbreaking findings that will generate solutions to protect the future of these critical ecosystems.”

Grandfather Mountain provides pivotal starting point for Everest expeditions

In addition to his work as a National Geographic Explorer, Perry has also conducted plenty of locally based research—including the operations of weather stations on Beech Mountain and Poga Mountain—but it was at Grandfather Mountain where he first found his footing.

In 2006, Grandfather Mountain reported a shockingly high wind speed of more than 200 miles per hour—a measurement that sparked questions from the scientific community. Perry was called upon to organize a one-day wind summit on the mountain, which brought the community together to identify solutions to find a more representative location to measure wind speed.

“We identified that the swinging bridge was a much better site to measure wind speed than the Top Shop where that strong gust was recorded, because that additional acceleration that occurs at the roof was impacting results,” said Perry. “Our team at App State installed a weather station right there on the bridge, and I think we found the peak gust to be about 124 miles per hour.”

Perry said it was this experience that helped him prepare for his expeditions to some of the highest peaks in the world, especially Mount Everest.

“I gained a lot of knowledge at Grandfather Mountain about wind sensors in extreme environments and the challenges that come with it,” said Perry. “Those experiences were absolutely important in planning for the types of sensors and stations that we took up to Everest.”

Perry said that of all the high-mountain work he has done, from Grandfather Mountain to Mount Everest, “They’re all special places. They are magical, spiritual and awe inspiring. When there are moments that I have a chance to stop and take it in and recognize the beauty of creation, it can be pretty amazing—literally on the edge of the world.”

Study abroad students make mountainous strides through hands-on education 

Since 1999, Perry has led 16 study abroad trips to Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru, where students have learned about climate change, glaciers, water resources and local culture.

“It’s been totally transformational for students to go on these trips,” said Perry. “They get to see what’s happening with their own eyes, but even just to experience the altitude and the thin air and to see these massive glaciers—that’s something you can’t get sitting in the classroom.”

Perry said many of his students have gone on to graduate from App State and land careers that have been directly informed by their study abroad experiences.

In the summer of 2022, a dozen App State students accompanied Perry and his National Geographic Society team during the acclimatization and preparation phase for installing the weather station on Nevado Ausangate in Peru.

“For me, as an educator, study abroad is certainly the highlight of what I get to do,” said Perry. “To work with students out in the field is really special. It exposes them to very different places and experiences that take them out of their comfort zones and really demands a lot of growth and self-reflection.”

Perry is hoping to soon take students on the first App State study abroad trip to Mount Everest, where they would climb as high as Base Camp, situated at nearly 17,500 feet.

“We’ve got a group of students who are excited to go,” said Perry. “Hopefully this will become something that we can continue to do in the future.”

Perry said none of what he does would be possible without the support of App State colleagues and the university’s willingness to give him the time and flexibility to participate in these expeditions.

“Dr. Perry’s teaching, research and service represent a hallmark of an App State education. Especially for undergraduate students, having opportunities to work with a National Geographic Explorer can be life changing,” said App State Chancellor Sheri Everts. “Thanks to his immersive teaching and exceptional scholarship, our students have unique opportunities to participate in hands-on research across the state, nation and world.”

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