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Ever wondered if mountains could grow taller than Mount Everest? Sixty million years ago, the Himalayan range was born as the Eurasian and Indian plates collided. As they were of similar density, neither could sink below the other, pushing rocks upwards to form Earth’s tallest mountains. Mount Everest is the highest, rising 5.4 miles (8.8 km) above sea level, followed by K2 at 5.3 miles (8.6 km).
According to Gene Humphreys, a geophysicist at the University of Oregon, a mountain could potentially grow “quite a bit taller than Everest,” but it would face challenges from gravity and erosion. Earth’s gravitational pull causes mountains to slouch, much like bread dough flattens on a table. Additionally, glaciers are powerful erosion agents, carving up mountains and creating steep sides prone to landslides.
Gravity-induced stresses and erosion mean that the larger the mountain, the more likely it is to collapse. While Everest could potentially grow taller, its steep south side appears unstable and susceptible to landslides. However, under the right conditions, a mountain could potentially rise up to 1 mile (1.6 km) taller than Everest, but it would have to be formed through volcanic processes rather than continental collisions.
Volcanic mountains, like the Hawaiian Islands, grow as lava flows out of erupting volcanoes and cools in layers. To continue growing, the mountain would need a constant source of magma that could be pumped higher, allowing it to erupt, flow, and cool. This is how Mars’ Olympus Mons, the tallest mountain in our solar system, was formed. It towers 16 miles (25 km) high, even piercing the Red Planet’s atmosphere.
Olympus Mons could grow so large because Mars lacks plate tectonics, the crustal rafts that shape Earth’s geological processes. The Martian volcano formed over a hotspot, a deep well of magma that repeatedly erupted, much like the Hawaiian Islands. However, Earth’s Pacific plate keeps moving, preventing the islands from staying over the hotspot long enough to create a mountain as massive as Olympus Mons.
Even Olympus Mons has its limits. If still active, it may be nearing the end of its growth, as the pressure needed to pump magma to the top may soon be unable to overcome Mars’ gravitational pull and the mountain’s height.
So, while Earth’s mountains may not be able to outgrow Everest anytime soon, it’s exciting to learn about the potential for taller peaks elsewhere in our solar system. Let’s keep exploring the wonders of nature and remember to protect our environment by living sustainably. Together, we can preserve the beauty and diversity of our planet for future generations to marvel at and enjoy!
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