A High-Tech Map Of The Himalayas Could Save Your Life

Nepal has commissioned meteorologists and geologists to remap the wind systems, mountains and valleys on the "Roof of the World." It could help us predict natural disasters.

On top of the world.
On top of the world.
Von Holger Kroker

JOMSOM Air traffic usually comes to a standstill at 10 o’clock in the morning at Nepal's Jomsom Airport, known as one of the world's most dangerous airfields. Turbulence, caused by thermal winds, is a daily occurrence in the valley that runs all the way from the gently rolling hills of Nepal up into the heart of the mountain range, which stands at over 26,000 feet.

The sun heats up the mountainsides, and the winds in the valley below begin to rise. At some point, the winds reach gale force. “Solar radiation causes incredibly strong wind systems to develop, up to wind force 8, which equals 43 miles per hour,” says glider pilot Jona Keimer. At certain times, squalls and turbulence make it impossible to take off or land.

But Keimer and co-pilot René Heise surf unperturbed above the chaos that reigns on the valley floor below. An air wave carries them along at an altitude of several hundred feet, ever deeper into the highest mountain range on earth. Behind them a nearly identical plane glides along in their wake.

The power glider pilots are carrying out a mission that could quite literally change our view of the world. Because the mountains are higher, the valleys cut deeper into the earth and rock faces slope down much more steeply than previously thought. The world that Keimer and Heise are mapping is different from the one we thought we knew.

They measure the highest mountains on our planet with a level of precision that wasn't technologically possible before. The quality of their pictures exceeds that of a satellite image. Both planes fly extremely close to the mountain range rock face, and the pictures taken will later become the basis for a 3-D model — the Himalayas in miniature. The idea behind this 3-D model is that it will make it easier to predict natural disasters such as landslides and avalanches — in short, it will save human lives.

Research in extreme conditions

Keimer and Heise glide along like swallows, following the route of the Kali Gandaki River. The flight to the source of the Kali Gandaki began shortly after sunrise in the central city of Pokhara, Nepal’s second-largest city. Pokhara was the base from which the team operated last winter, flying north to the Annapurna massif or east to Mount Everest, always keeping close to the main mountain range.

(photo - Mckaysavage)

The Himalayas form a perfect playground for airwave research: Fourteen mountains exceeding 26,200 feet and a phalanx of only marginally lower summits line up to form a solid wall to block Southeast Asian monsoons.

The project “Mountain Wave” was created to research so-called lee waves. It's the brainchild of researchers René Heise and Klaus Ohlmann and meteorologist Joerg Hacker. Lee waves are created when winds meet an obstacle such as a mountain range. On the wind-facing side, the wind crashes onto the side of the mountain and flows over the summit. Lee waves are created as the wind flows down the other side: As it shoots down the windward side, the wind begins to whirl, causing eddy currents. Oscillations in the air form lee waves.

Just like ocean waves, lee waves break quite quickly. But their breaking is not easy to predict and often occurs at the height where modern commercial aircrafts travel. “This can cause turbulence, which in turn creates critical difficulties, making it hard to control the airplane,” explains Heise, the project manager and a meteorologist and full-time field-grade officer in the German Air Force. The results of his research will be included in turbulence prediction techniques, to provide safer and steadier flights.

Germany's national aeronautics and space research center, which initiated the Himalaya project, provided the high-tech camera system with which the motor gliders are equipped. The pictures, taken in a small grids along the mountain range with incredibly high resolution, are then reconstituted to form a 3-D model of the valleys and mountains with an accuracy that has never been reached before. It may even settle the question of the height of Mount Everest, which has been contested since its first surveying in 1856. It is currently estimated to be between 29,028 and 29,035 feet, a difference of only seven feet. But the results of the research flights has settled its height somewhere in the middle, at 29,032 feet.

But mountain heights are actually of little interest to the researchers. The Himalayas project is is intended to supply Nepalese geologists and authorities with improved means to protect the public from rock slides, landslides and avalanches.

More security against natural disasters

Improved protection is absolutely vital as evidenced by the events of May 5, 2012. A gigantic rock slide from the face of the 24,688-feet Annapurna IV made its way into the valley and into Seti River, causing a chain of tidal waves that killed 72 people. Even 50 kilometers further downstream, in Pokhara, boulders and uprooted trees were washed ashore.

(photo - Mckaysavage)

Precise models of the terrain could have never been achieved through satellite imagery alone, as that technology is not as accurate as the photographs. Despite the masses of satellites available, the views of earth from an angle and can't accurately reflect height, says engineer Joerg Brauchle. The MACS (Modular Aerial Camera Systems) cameras attached to the airplane are able to provide exact digital information despite difficult flying conditions and having to be careful not to cross the Chinese border at Mount Everest.

But the sheer volume of successfully collected data accrued in difficult conditions hasn't delighted everyone. The pictures taken cold cannot simply be converted into a 3-D model. The computer scientist analyzing the data has to arrange the pictures in a specific way before developing a consistent model, a process that is still ongoing.

When all data has been calibrated, engineers will be able to develop exact terrain models of some of the most beautiful valleys and mountains of Nepal as well as for parts of the capital Katmandu. The data will also be compared to information from Nepalese glaciologists to reassess the MACS method. If the model correlates with reality, other parts of the world will be measured in the same way, providing the most accurate picture of earth to date.

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Air Next: How A Crypto Scam Collapsed On A Single Spelling Mistake

It is today a proven fraud, nailed by the French stock market watchdog: Air Next resorted to a full range of dubious practices to raise money but the simplest of errors exposed the scam and limited the damage to investors.

Sky is the crypto limit

Laurence Boisseau

PARIS — Air Next promised to use blockchain technology to revolutionize passenger transport. Should we have read something into its name? In fact, the company was talking a lot of hot air from the start. Air Next turned out to be a scam, with a fake website, false identities, fake criminal records, counterfeited bank certificates, aggressive marketing … real crooks. Thirty-five employees recruited over the summer ranked among its victims, not to mention the few investors who put money in the business.

Maud (not her real name) had always dreamed of working in a start-up. In July, she spotted an ad on Linkedin and was interviewed by videoconference — hardly unusual in the era of COVID and teleworking. She was hired very quickly and signed a permanent work contract. She resigned from her old job, happy to get started on a new adventure.

Others like Maud fell for the bait. At least ten senior managers, coming from major airlines, airports, large French and American corporations, a former police officer … all firmly believed in this project. Some quit their jobs to join; some French expats even made their way back to France.

Share capital of one billion 

The story began last February, when Air Next registered with the Paris Commercial Court. The new company stated it was developing an application that would allow the purchase of airline tickets by using cryptocurrency, at unbeatable prices and with an automatic guarantee in case of cancellation or delay, via a "smart contract" system (a computer protocol that facilitates, verifies and oversees the handling of a contract).

The firm declared a share capital of one billion euros, with offices under construction at 50, Avenue des Champs Elysées, and a president, Philippe Vincent ... which was probably a usurped identity.

Last summer, Air Next started recruiting. The company also wanted to raise money to have the assets on hand to allow passenger compensation. It organized a fundraiser using an ICO, or "Initial Coin Offering", via the issuance of digital tokens, transacted in cryptocurrencies through the blockchain.

While nothing obliged him to do so, the company owner went as far as setting up a file with the AMF, France's stock market regulator which oversees this type of transaction. Seeking the market regulator stamp is optional, but when issued, it gives guarantees to those buying tokens.

screenshot of the typo that revealed the Air Next scam

The infamous typo that brought the Air Next scam down

compta online

Raising Initial Coin Offering 

Then, on Sept. 30, the AMF issued an alert, by way of a press release, on the risks of fraud associated with the ICO, as it suspected some documents to be forgeries. A few hours before that, Air Next had just brought forward by several days the date of its tokens pre-sale.

For employees of the new company, it was a brutal wake-up call. They quickly understood that they had been duped, that they'd bet on the proverbial house of cards. On the investor side, the CEO didn't get beyond an initial fundraising of 150,000 euros. He was hoping to raise millions, but despite his failure, he didn't lose confidence. Challenged by one of his employees on Telegram, he admitted that "many documents provided were false", that "an error cost the life of this project."

What was the "error" he was referring to? A typo in the name of the would-be bank backing the startup. A very small one, at the bottom of the page of the false bank certificate, where the name "Edmond de Rothschild" is misspelled "Edemond".

Finding culprits 

Before the AMF's public alert, websites specializing in crypto-assets had already noted certain inconsistencies. The company had declared a share capital of 1 billion euros, which is an enormous amount. Air Next's CEO also boasted about having discovered bitcoin at a time when only a few geeks knew about cryptocurrency.

Employees and investors filed a complaint. Failing to find the general manager, Julien Leclerc — which might also be a fake name — they started looking for other culprits. They believe that if the Paris Commercial Court hadn't registered the company, no one would have been defrauded.

Beyond the handful of victims, this case is a plea for the implementation of more secure procedures, in an increasingly digital world, particularly following the pandemic. The much touted ICO market is itself a victim, and may find it hard to recover.

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