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World & Nation

The newly renamed Denali is not as high as we thought (but still huge!)

Denali

Blaine Horner of CompassData probes the snow pack at the highest point in North America, setting up GPS equipment for precise elevation data on top of Denali in Alaska.

(Compass Data / U.S. Geological Survey)

McKinley’s revenge!

North America’s tallest (and most controversial) mountain got a little bit shorter Wednesday when scientists announced that the newly renamed Denali, in Alaska, is smaller than previously thought.

Before President Obama restored the original Native American title to the former Mt. McKinley on Sunday, its official height had been pegged at a staggering 20,320 feet -- a majestic 3.848 miles above sea level.

With Wednesday’s new official U.S. Geological Survey measurement, Denali has been downgraded to a piddly 20,310 feet -- a mere 3.847 miles above sea level.

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That’s a difference of ... 10 whole feet. Which is, in a way, kind of impressive, despite the fact that Americans generally prefer when record-breakingly large stuff gets record-breakingly larger.

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Denali didn’t shrink, scientists say. It was just measured differently after a team clambered to the top of the mountain with GPS tracking equipment in June, well before Obama’s decision stirred up William McKinley fans in McKinley’s home state of Ohio, whose legislators liked the mountain’s name as it was.

Trying to figure out the true size of a mountain is actually pretty hard. Conditions on Denali were treacherous, and the science isn’t much easier.

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The team had to figure out the true highest point on the mountain, drive meter-long poles through the snow, hope their equipment didn’t freeze, and then later measure their data against a geodetic datum -- a standardized geological point of reference -- to establish Denali’s  height.

USGS officials said they were impressed that a previous surveyor, Dr. Brad Washburn, had managed to so closely peg the mountain’s height using long-distance trigonometry and a precision telescope (called a theodolite) in 1953.

“Knowing the height of Denali is precisely 20,310 feet has important value to Earth scientists, geographers, airplane pilots, mountaineers and the general public,” Suzette Kimball, the USGS acting director, said in a statement Wednesday. “It is inspiring to think we can measure this magnificent peak with such accuracy. This is a feeling everyone can share, whether you happen to be an armchair explorer or an experienced mountain climber.”

Denali doesn’t have everyone feeling as inspired lately. The issue of diminished stature is a particularly interesting one for anyone who’s been following the former Mt. McKinley in the news this week.

At 5-foot-7, McKinley was one of the nation’s shortest presidents, and the massive mountain was named after him only because a vindictive gold prospector was trying to score political points during the Ohio native’s first presidential run in 1896. That’s politics for you.

Alaskans, who continued to call the mountain by the name Native Americans gave it first, Denali, have for decades unsuccessfully battled boosterish Ohio lawmakers to strip McKinley’s name. McKinley, who was assassinated in 1901 during his second term in office, never went to Alaska.

Now Ohio lawmakers, still trying to protect McKinley’s legacy, have gotten upset that Obama ended a decades-long political struggle by restoring the original name favored and used by Alaskans. (Obama is 6-foot-1.)

“There is a reason President McKinley’s name has served atop the highest peak in North America for more than 100 years, and that is because it is a testament to his great legacy,” House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said in a statement Sunday.

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“McKinley served our country with distinction during the Civil War as a member of the Army,” Boehner said. “He made a difference for his constituents and his state as a member of the House of Representatives and as governor of the great state of Ohio. And he led this nation to prosperity and victory in the Spanish-American War as the 25th president of the United States. I’m deeply disappointed in this decision.”

Meanwhile, the mountain remains deeply disappointed about nothing, and was last seen looming with terrific tranquility on the Alaskan horizon. 

Follow @MattDPearce for national news

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