Climate change to impact mountains on a global scale

Hiking trips may become a thing of the past, all thanks to climate change.

Under the threat of climate change, mountain landscapes all over the world are at risk of becoming more hazardous to the communities surrounding them, while their accelerated evolution may bring further environmental risks to surrounding areas.

A researcher at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa, highlighted the sensitivity of mountains to global climate change in a new study on the eve of the COP27 climate meeting. 

Professor Jasper Knight of Wits University’s School of Geography, Archaeology and Environmental Studies demonstrated how complex mountain systems react to climate change in a variety of very different and occasionally unexpected ways, and how these reactions can impact mountain landscapes and communities. 

“Worldwide, mountain glaciers are retreating because of global warming and this is causing impacts on mountain landforms, ecosystems and people. However, these impacts are highly variable. The latest report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change treats all mountains as equally sensitive and responding in the same way to climate change. However, this approach is not correct,” said Knight. 

Around the world, mountain snow and ice provide water for hundreds of millions of people, but this water supply is in jeopardy due to changing weather patterns and shrinking mountain glaciers. Future years will only see a worsening of the water crisis in dry continental regions of Asia, North America, South America and Europe.

The study also demonstrates the detrimental effects that climate change will have on mountain landscapes and human activity. The risk of hazards like avalanches, river flooding, landslides, debris flows and lake outburst floods is rising. 

These environmental disasters are aggravated by permafrost warming and glacier retreat. Mountain slopes are becoming greener as lowland forests spread to higher elevations and alpine ecosystems and endemic species are already in danger of local extinction.

“As snow and ice shrink, mountain land surfaces are getting darker and this dramatically changes their heat balance, meaning they are warming up faster than the areas around them. Therefore, climate change impacts are bigger on mountains than they are anywhere else. This is a real problem, not just for mountains but also for the areas around them,” Knight said.

Climate change has an impact on cultures and communities in mountains. As grazing areas become smaller and water becomes more scarce, transhumance — the seasonal practice of moving livestock from one grazing area to another — and traditional agriculture are disappearing. 

These traditional practices are also being replaced by industries like tourism, mining, urbanization and commercial forestry. Indigenous cultures and knowledge, as well as mountain heritage landscapes, are not sufficiently studied or valued.

According to the new research, mountains should be viewed as integrated biophysical and socioecological systems, where both people and natural landscapes are significant. This could protect these environments from upcoming change.