International Year of the Mountains

The year 2002 has been designated the International Year of Mountains by the United Nations General Assembly. Mountain regions are home to around one-tenth of the world’s population most of whom are the poorest and the most marginalized of peoples. Rich in biodiversity and crucial to the collection and transporting of fresh water for all, the importance of caring for these vital ecosystems cannot be stressed enough.

Human activities are profoundly affecting the world’s climate, and mountains are a barometer of that effect. Understanding how climate change affects mountains is vital as governments and international organizations develop strategies to reverse current global warming trends.

Each day, fossil fuel-burning technologies produce greenhouse gases that enhance the heat-trapping capability of the earth’s atmosphere, gradually raising the planet’s temperature. Because of their altitude, slope and orientation to the sun, mountain ecosystems are easily disrupted by variations in temperature.

As the world heats up, mountain glaciers are melting at unprecedented rates, while rare plants and animals struggle to survive over increasingly smaller ranges, and mountain people, already among the world’s poorest citizens, face greater hardships.

Over the last century, glaciers in the European Alps and the Caucasus Mountains have shrunk to half their size, while in Africa only eight percent of Mount Kenya’s largest glacier remains. If current trends continue, by the end of this century many of the world’s mountain glaciers, including all those in Glacier National Park in the United States, will have vanished entirely.

In Peru, approximately 10 million residents of Lima depend on freshwater from the Quelcaya Glacier. In other parts of the world, rapid glacial melting is expected to disrupt agriculture and cause flooding. In Nepal, a glacial lake burst its banks in 1985, sending a 15 metre wall of water rushing downhill, drowning people and destroying homes. Many climatologists believe that the decline in mountain glaciers is one of the first observable signs of human-induced global warming.

Changes in the depth of mountain glaciers and in their seasonal melting patterns will have an enormous impact on water resources in many parts of the world.

Mountains are often called nature’s water towers. Because of their size and shape, they intercept air circulating around the globe and force it upwards where it condenses into clouds, which provide rain and snow. All the major rivers in the world – from the Rio Grande to the Nile – have their headwaters in mountains. As a consequence, more than half the world’s people rely on mountain water to grow food, to produce electricity, to sustain industries and, most importantly, to drink. As populations increase and demand for clean water grows, the potential for conflict also rises. Careful management of mountain ecosystems and the water resources they support has never been more important to our long-term security and survival.

We are all mountain people

Whether we live at sea level or at the highest elevations, we are all mountain people. We are connected to mountains and are affected by mountains in more ways than we can imagine. Mountains provide most of the world’s fresh water and harbour as much or more biodiversity than any other areas and are home to at least one in ten people. Yet, war, poverty, hunger, climate change and environmental degradation are threatening the web of life that mountains support.

The International Year of Mountains is an opportunity to take steps to protect mountain ecosystems, to promote peace and stability in mountain regions and to help mountain people attain their goals and aspirations. By taking care of the world’s mountains, we help to ensure the long-term security and survival of all that is connected to them, including ourselves.

Mountains have also been described as islands of biodiversity surrounded by an ocean of monocultures and human-altered landscapes. Indeed, many plants and animals found in mountain habitats have disappeared from lowland regions, crowded out by human activities.

Isolation and relative inaccessibility have helped protect and preserve species in mountains – from deer, eagles and llamas to wild varieties of mustard, cardamom, gooseberry and pumpkin. These precious reserves of genetic diversity are our insurance for the future, particularly as the global economy continues to turn lowland habitats into fields of high-yield food crops – monocultures that feed many of the word's people but are vulnerable to evolving pests and pathogens.

Because of their shape and size, mountains support a wide range of climatic conditions. Climbing just 100 metres up a mountain slope can offer as much climatic variety as travelling 100 kilometres across flat terrain. Mountain climates are like narrow bands, each stacked on top of the other. Every rise in altitude generates different conditions, supporting unique and often isolated ecosystems with some of the world’s greatest variety of plant and animal life.

As the world heats up, however, conditions within each of these narrow bands is changing. Already scientists have witnessed examples of species moving uphill in search of more suitable habitat.

Climatologists believe that a predicted rise in global temperatures of 3°C would be equivalent to an ecological shift upwards of about 500 metres in altitude. Not all species will be able to move. Those confined to the tops of mountains or below impassable barriers may face extinction as their habitat grows smaller.

The rarest species are most at risk of extinction. Among these are mountain pygmy possum in Australia, ptarmigan and snow bunting in the United Kingdom, Gelada baboons in Ethiopia and monarch butterflies in Mexico.

For mountain people, each day atop the world’s most extreme landscapes is a test of survival. Now, however, as global climate change threatens to disrupt mountain environments, life for most mountain people will only get harder. For example, just as warming trends are forcing many species to migrate uphill in search of habitat, mountain people too will have to adapt to changes – or leave their homes as traditional sources of food and fuel grow scarce.

At the same time, mountains will become more dangerous as melted permafrost and glacial runoff accelerate soil erosion as well as the likelihood of falling rocks, landslides, floods and avalanches. Irrigation will be affected, first by floods and then by drought, making survival harder for subsistence farmers as well as those who grow cash crops. Nearly all economic activities, such as logging and tourism, are likely to decline as mountain ecosystems are changed irrevocably.

One of the indirect consequences of global warming in mountain regions is increasing risk of infectious diseases. Scientists have reported that the mosquitoes that carry malaria, dengue and yellow fever are spreading to higher altitudes as temperatures warm. The Aedes aegypti mosquito, which spreads dengue fever and yellow fever, has traditionally been unable to survive at altitudes higher than 1,000 metres above sea level. In recent years, however, mosquitoes have been reported at 1,150 metres in Costa Rica and at 2,200 metres in Colombia. Mountain people are among the world’s poorest citizens. With few resources to ward off infectious diseases, they are likely to be among global warming’s greatest victims if human activities that contribute to climate change are not soon reversed.

There has never been a ‘science’ of mountains. Our understanding of mountains, as opposed to oceans or lowland rain forests, is derived from a variety of scientific disciplines that rarely exchange ideas or information. As a consequence, crucial relationships between upper and lower watersheds, mountain forests and alpine grasslands, mountain people and lowland urban dwellers have never been understood. Integrating the many ways in which we examine mountain ecosystems – blurring the lines between geology, meteorology, hydrology, biology, anthropology and economics – will not only raise awareness but aid the development of sustainable practices that will help protect mountain ecosystems and the biodiversity they shelter.

Mountains are, indeed, a barometer of global climate change. These fragile ecosystems are highly sensitive to changes in temperature. Indeed, many climatologists believe mountains provide an early glimpse of what may come to pass in lowland environments. It is vital that the biophysical components of mountains are strictly monitored and studied. Information on the health of mountain environments will undoubtedly assist governments and international organizations as they develop strategies and mount strong campaigns to reverse current global warming trends.

As a final global event during the International Year of Mountains, the Bishkek Global Mountain Summit will take place in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, 29th October to 1st November 2002.

Further information
The International Year of Mountains web site contains further briefing materials which are also available from Sandra McGuire or Alexia Baldascini, International Year of Mountains Coordination Unit, FAO, Viale delle Terme di Caracalla, 00100 Rome, Italy.

On the Web
On the Web: Mountains and climate change lists relevant web sites.

This article is based on material kindly provided by the International Year of Mountains Secretariat.