The Shrinking Mountain of New Zealand


I’d like to start out with a proof that I haven’t been to New Zealand. I feel like if I’m going to bring stuff like this to people’s attention I should have a ready alibi. Unfortunately, the fact is that I haven’t ever been to New Zealand — the closest I’ve ever been to New Zealand has been some emotional closeness with imaginary squirrels based out of there — and it is sadly impossible to prove a negative. At least, I think it’s impossible to prove a negative, although I don’t suppose I have seen that demonstrated. Well, it’s probably true enough.

What’s got me on this is that apparently New Zealand’s tallest mountain has come up about a hundred feet shorter than everyone thought it was. I didn’t have anything to do with it, but I also don’t want the hassle of being suspected by New Zealand police or, worse, angry geologists. They’re people who are very skilled with rocks, and I’m very bad at flinching, so all I can do if they’re going to be riled up is not be the person they’re riled at. But according to a survey by the University of Otago in November 2013, Mount Cook, also called Aoraki, comes in at 3,724 meters tall, whereas it used to be figured at 3,754 meters tall, and they’re using the same old meters both cases so don’t go thinking that’s the problem.

So if we’re all agreed that I’m not to blame for shrinking any mountains anywhere near New Zealand, and if we’re not then I’m afraid we’re not going to be able to have a civil conversation and must face the prospect that we’ll learn how well we can flinch from rocks, we can get to wondering where the mountain height went. I guess the first thing to check is if maybe they shrank the typeface they’re using to label the thing “Mount Cook, also called Aoraki”. Maybe someone figured instead of mixed case it should be put up on the mountain in small caps instead, and that makes the whole name just run out too long and they had to make the letters less tall to compensate. You might ask how this could possibly make a difference; I say, don’t underestimate typeface enthusiasts. They’ve got to have been looking at that “r” in Aoraki and thinking how magnificent it would look in capitals, even small capitals. There are some lovely things to be done with a “k” as well, if it’s balanced right. I wouldn’t be surprised if they slipped a “W” into the name, regardless of what it does to the ordering of New Zealand mountain heights.

And apparently it hasn’t done anything about New Zealand mountain height orderings, if I understand right. The second-tallest mountain, Mount Second Tallest Mountain Or Something, is still second-tallest and doesn’t seem to be gaining any. This, of course, rules out a couple possibilities for how Mount Cook, Also Called Aoraki, might have shrunk. Apparently people weren’t swiping height from the first to boost other mountains that anybody’s caught, for example. I guess we can rule out that everyone’s just standing a little bit taller so the mountains appear to be shorter, since that would affect all the other mountains just as much and we’d be seeing widespread reports of New Zealanders discovering stuff they forgot was on top of the refrigerator.

Of course, wouldn’t it be something if someone were swiping height from Mount Cook, Also Called Aoraki, and were turning it into extra width or depth of other mountains by the simple process of rotating it in three-dimensional space? Has anyone done a careful measurement of just how fat the mountains of New Zealand are lately? If they haven’t, can we be positive this isn’t what’s going on? And before you go chuckling that of course the people responsible for mountain checking would notice and report on any mountain fatness before announcing the mysterious loss of height, consider that these same mountain-checkers didn’t notice exactly when their tallest mountain went and shrunk some. There’s obviously plenty of chances for mischief.

It just struck me I shouldn’t say the mountain has come up a hundred feet shorter. I should probably do something about that.