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5 things you might not know about mountains and climate change

© Art Wolfe/ www.artwolfe.com

Ancient. Enduring. Unshakable?

The health of the world’s mountains is not set in stone. As the climate changes, mountains are changing, and their contributions to the health of the planet — and to human well-being — could shift in ways we cannot predict.

On March 15, Conservation International released “Mountain,” the newest film in its “ Nature Is Speaking” series. Voiced by the actor Lee Pace, the film seeks to give a voice to the world’s mountains and to highlight the threats that they face.

While much attention is focused on protecting forests, wetlands and coral reefs, mountains are sometimes taken for granted — yet climate change could crumble their ability to support life as we know it.

Here are a few things you might not know about mountains.

  1. Mountains are the world’s water towers — and strongholds of biodiversity.

Most of the world’s rivers begin in the mountains. Because of their height, mountains act as water towers, diverting air masses and forcing them to rise, cool and fall as rain or snow. Water flowing from mountains doesn’t just provide essential drinking water; it also sustains food production for more than half of the world’s population. Rising temperatures attributed to climate change, however, could melt mountain glaciers at much faster rates, leading to more flooding and increased sedimentation and pollution of aquatic ecosystems, likely causing permanent damage.

Their inaccessibility has spared mountains somewhat from human encroachment and agricultural development, making them remote biological hotspots — diverse hubs of flora and fauna. Unfortunately these species aren’t safe from harm. As global average temperatures increase, many species will be forced to migrate up the mountain in search of cooler climes — and at some point there won’t be anywhere else for them to go.

  1. Mountainous cloud forests power major cities.

Cloud forests are vital to energy security in cities like Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paulo and Bogotá, which rely on hydroelectric dams to provide their electricity. Found at high elevations in mountainous regions, cloud forests catch rainfall and fogs that increase and regulate stream flows. Without healthy cloud forests, this water would likely return to the atmosphere without reaching rivers — which ultimately flow to hydropower dams downstream. Healthy cloud forests also limit the amount of sediment flowing into the water, prolonging the life of dams and improving their economic performance.

Without the unique montane climate and other conditions made possible by cloud forests, none of this filtration and regulation of fresh water would be possible. Any changes to the climate could affect these mountainous ecosystems, potentially reducing rainfall — and the provision of power to some of the world’s largest cities.

Indonesian coffee farmers could not depend on coffee crops as a major source of income without the fragile microclimates created by the country’s mountains. (© Conservation International/photo by Tory Read)

  1. Mountains make your morning coffee.

Coffee thrives on forested mountains, and Indonesia is among the largest coffee producers in the world, largely due to the unique conditions created by the country’s mountains. These “microclimates” are well suited for coffee production, an important source of income for many Indonesian farmers. But this livelihood is in peril — thanks to deforestation and climate change, Indonesia may soon face less rainfall and drier conditions unsuitable for coffee crops.

Despite these predicted ill effects on our coffee supply, all is not lost: Conservation International and others are working to improve agricultural practices and protect forests in order to make coffee a more resilient — and sustainable — crop.

  • Mountains nurture one of the world’s most important foods.
  • Higher ground is a finite resource, a fact that potato farmers in Peru and other Andean countries know all too well. Normally grown at high altitudes, the potatoes of these montane areas are central to the Andean culture and diet. Potatoes originated in Peru, fed the Incan empire, and over the course of 8,000 years have morphed into 2,500 different varieties. But during the past three decades, these potato farmers have slowly moved their crop to higher elevations in order to escape agricultural diseases and pests brought on by rising temperatures.

    Ancient potato farming techniques involve planting a range of potato varieties across a large stretch of land to minimize risk of crop failure. Modern monoculture farming practices can allow for crop growth in warmer climates through the use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers; however, these chemicals present risks to human health and threaten the genetic diversity of potatoes. (The Irish potato famine in the mid-1800s illustrates what can happen when you only plant one kind of potato.)

    Seeds from ancient potato species were recently added to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway. Maintaining the genetic diversity of potatoes increases the likelihood of preserving a species that may be more resistant to pests and disease — or higher temperatures.

    1. Mountains may be getting more dangerous for climbers.

    Each year, thousands risk their lives to attempt a climb of Mount Everest, a dangerous pursuit with a US$ 50,000 price tag. There is no guarantee of success, but these climbers accept the many risks to ascend some of the world’s most formidable slopes in hopes of summiting Earth’s highest peak, and gazing upon the world below. But this adventure soon may be coming to an end.

    Rising temperatures brought by a changing climate are causing snow and ice to melt on Everest, leading to more avalanches and increased rock-falls, such as the 2014 avalanche that killed 16 climbers. Consequently, the danger of climbing the world’s tallest mountain may be increasing — not just for the tourists, but also for the Nepali mountain guides whose jobs put them at more frequent risk.

    The massive glaciers that reside on top of the mountain may also cause greater landslides and flooding in the surrounding areas, endangering the lives of the millions of people living nearby. Currently, Everest is on track for a glacial loss of at least 70% by 2100.

    Eric Walton is a communications intern at Conservation International.


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