It’s no surprise that Mount Everest, the crown jewel of Nepal’s Himalayan range, is the world’s highest peak
It’s one of those facts you learn as a child, like Neil Armstrong being the first man to walk on the moon or blue whales being the largest creatures ever to have lived.
You might be surprised to learn that other peaks could theoretically be considered Earth’s tallest; it all depends on how you measure them.
So, what is the tallest mountain in the world, according to various parameters such as tallest by altitude, tallest from base to top, and tallest based on being the farthest point from Earth’s center?
Mount Everest, located deep in the Mahlangr Himl subrange of the Himalayas, is without a doubt the most famous — and alluring — of all our planet’s mountains. Everest, also known as Chomolungma, which means “Goddess Mother of the World” in Tibetan, was first scaled on May 29, 1953 by Tenzing Norgay, a Sherpa from Nepal, and New Zealander Edmund Hillary, and has since been successfully climbed by over 4,000 people. According to the Guardian, the mountain has claimed the lives of over 300 people since records began in 1922.
Mount Everest has been measured numerous times over the years, but the most recent estimate, announced in November 2021, places it at 29,031.69 feet (8,848.86 meters) above sea level, or nearly 5.5 miles (8.8 kilometers) tall. It’s an impressive height, but it begs the question: why do we use “above sea level” to determine the world’s tallest peak?
“In order to have comparability in measurements, it is necessary to have a consistent baseline. Historically, and even now, elevation is usually given as height above mean sea level. However, this has to be with reference to a standard mean sea level, which has to be defined. Sea levels are different in different parts of the world, and they’re changing due to climate change.”Martin Price, a professor and founding director of the Centre for Mountain Studies at the University of Highlands and Islands in Scotland
As a result, he explained, “elevation is now measured in relation to the mathematically defined geoid of the Earth.” The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration defines the geoid as “a model of global mean sea level that is used to measure precise surface elevations.” According to GIM International, this average is used to determine the height of mountains, a process that sometimes requires an aeroplane to fly “back and forth over a mountain in a series of parallel lines to measure how much gravity pulls down on its peak.” When these measurements are combined with GPS readings, they provide incredibly accurate elevation readings.
So, all mountains are measured from sea level, primarily for convenience and consistency, but what if measurements were taken from base to peak instead? Would Everest still be at the top of the list?
The answer is a resounding “no.” Mauna Kea, an inactive volcano in Hawaii, would receive this honor. According to National Geographic, the majority of Mauna Kea is hidden below sea level, despite its peak being 13,802 feet (4,205 m) above sea level — less than half the height of Everest. According to the United States Geological Survey, Mauna Kea is 33,497 feet (10,211 m) tall from base to peak, putting it head and shoulders above Mount Everest.
Should we therefore consider Mauna Kea to be the tallest mountain on the planet?
It all depends on your point of view. There would be no debate if our planet did not have oceans! You could compare it to the highest mountains on other bodies in our solar system that don’t have oceans.
Mount Chimborazo in Ecuador, on the other hand, has a peak that is the farthest point from the Earth’s center.
Chimborazo isn’t the tallest mountain in the Andes — in fact, it’s not even in the top 30 — but its proximity to the equator is what makes it so special. The Earth is not a perfect sphere — it’s an oblate spheroid — and it bulges along the equator. This is due to the rotational force of the Earth. As a result, according to NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, there is a 13.29 mile (21.39 km) difference between the planet’s polar radius (3,949.90 miles/6,356.75 km) and its equatorial radius (3,963.19 miles/6,378.14 km).
Chimborazo is only 1 degree south of the equator, where Earth’s bulge is most visible; this geographical quirk means Chimborazo’s summit is 3,967 miles from Earth’s core, or 6,798 feet (2,072 m) farther away than Everest’s summit.
So, which of these three challengers for tallest mountain should be crowned the winner?
Mount Everest is the tallest mountain above sea level, but Mauna Kea is the tallest mountain in the world (when sea level is not taken into account). It’s difficult to argue that Chimborazo is the tallest, but “it’s all a matter of perspective,” Price admitted.
Whatever mountain you choose, its height will pale in comparison to Mars’ Olympus Mons, the solar system’s largest known volcano. According to NASA, it has a height of around 16 miles (25 km), which is nearly three times the height of Everest, and a base diameter of 374 miles (601.9 km), which is roughly the same distance between San Francisco and Los Angeles (383.1 miles/616.5 km).
Rheasilvia is an impact crater on the asteroid Vesta, which is part of the asteroid belt 100 million miles from Earth. According to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the peak at the center of this crater could be anywhere between 12 and 15.5 miles (20 and 25 km) tall, making it the tallest mountain in the solar system.