Earlier this month, Alaska’s Lt. Governor Mead Treadwell announced that cartographers had a new height evaluation for Mount McKinley or Denali as the mountain is known locally in Alaska.
“The good news is: Denali is still the tallest peak in North America,” he added.
The bad news was it was shorter; the new report gave a height of 20,237 feet (6,168 m) or 83 feet shorter than the 1952 estimate of 20,320 feet (6,194 m).
Shortly after the announcement however, Kari Craun of the U.S. Geological Survey clarified the measurements to the Associated Press and National Geographic explaining that the results were an average for an area around the summit rather than a specific height record of the mountain’s peak.
To obtain the new height estimate, the USGS and its partners, including the State of Alaska, used a digital elevation model that took into account data collected in 2010 from an airborne, snow and ice penetrating, Interferometric Synthethic Aperture Radar (InSAR), which was added into the National Elevation Dataset this year. But models are only as good as the data being fed into them, and the InSAR data provided an average height for a 269-square-foot (25-square-meter) area around the summit, not a point reference to its tallest peak.
Today NASA’s Earth Observatory went one step further, with a reminder that the mountain is still, in fact, growing: “by about 1 millimeter (.04 inches) per year due to the ongoing collision of the Pacific and North American plates.”
So the 1952 survey may still mark the mountain’s highest peak – which today might even be a couple inches taller. Officially, the USGS takes no position in favor of either the 1952 elevation or the recent 83-feet shorter measurement. The point of the recent survey was to gain a better overall, bird’s-eye view of Alaska’s rugged terrain. Indeed the new data identified an entire ridgeline of Mt. Dickey in Denali National Park that was missing from previous maps.
Even at the shorter height however, McKinley is still 680 feet taller than its closest competitor, Canada’s Mount Logan. And as mountaineer Nick Parker told Anchorage Daily News: “It’s still high, it’s still hard, it’s still cold.”