May 29, 2013 at 12:01 AM ET
Sixty years ago, Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay struggled to make the first ascent of Mt. Everest — but today, anyone with an Internet connection can easily trek to basecamp, take a virtual flight over the region's glaciers, and see how the mountain has changed over the years.
"What we've heard from the scientists that study these specific glaciers is that the melt rate is increasing dramatically," David Breashears, a famed mountaineer and filmmaker, told NBC News.
"One then says, well if we continue to put more carbon into the air … what will the glaciers look like and what will the consequences be?"
The website, Everest: Rivers of Ice, uses a new interactive storytelling technology from Microsoft Research to help Breashears prod people to ponder the consequences of the region's changing glaciers.
The project started in 2007 when Breashears was asked by PBS to match an iconic 1921 image taken by George Mallory of the Main Rongbuk Glacier, which begins in the North Face of Mount Everest. "The vertical melt rate of the glacier was just astonishing," said Breashears.
The experience compelled him to start the non-profit GlacierWorks, which aims to document, educate and raise awareness about the glaciers in the Himalaya, which are a water source for as many as 1.5 billion people and reflect sunlight back to the atmosphere, slowing the pace of warming.
What can the Web be?
Microsoft teamed up with the non-profit "to showcase what the Web can be," Roger Capriotti, director of product marketing for Internet Explorer, explained to NBC News.
The image of the basecamp, for example, contains on the order of 4 gigabytes of data and is the amalgamation of more than 400 images that have been stitched together. Visitors take in the broad view, and then zoom-in on basecamp to see individual people or climbers higher up the mountain.
At of the heart of website is a storytelling platform developed by Microsoft Research called Rich Interactive Narratives (RIN), which allows for integration of data heavy video, images, and maps in a way that lets users explore Everest on their own.
"We are just starting down a path of building great interactive experiences in a way that we just haven't done before," Capriotti said.
For Breashears, the Web technology allows him to use his vast archives of imagery as well as those collected by his mountaineering colleagues and scientists to lure visitors to a region of the world many would otherwise never visit and, hopefully, prod them to think about global change.
Key to this lesson is a series of images of vanishing glaciers that allow comparisons of historic photographs with those taken in recent years. The images are laid on top of each other, allowing the user to scroll back and forth between them with a flick of the finger or mouse.
But the website is more than glaciers, Breashears noted. He wants visitors to learn about the Himalaya region in general and as they do never forget where they are.
For this reason, users can zoom in on Namche Bazaar, for example, which serves as a trading post between Nepal and Tibet, but not into the doorway of a home there. But once zoomed down on the town, a video becomes available showing a street level view of the traders.
In future iterations of the website, he noted, users may be offered an opportunity to watch an interview with an expert on the local people, or a slideshow showing what the village looked like before the first Westerners arrived in the mid-20th century.
"The goal is that if you get this storytelling platform developed today at a certain level then there will be a tremendous amount of high-quality user-generated content … and what we've done is we've just presented this great architecture, this stage."
John Roach is a contributing writer for NBC News. To learn more about him, visit his website.