International Mountain Day took place on December 11 this year, and the theme was 'restoring mountain ecosystems’. The United Nations (UN) reports that mountains are host to about half of the world’s most valuable sites of biodiversity, as well as 15% of the human population.
However, along with the rest of the planet, mountain ecosystems are under threat from climate change, overexploitation and pollution. The world’s freshwater supplies are under threat from glacier melt and contamination, which in turn affects agricultural production and food supplies.
As the demand for farmland grows, mountain slopes are being cleared of forestry, which contributes to higher rates of soil erosion and the loss of wildlife habitats and plant species. There are also fewer trees to remove the CO2 from the atmosphere, which heightens the effects of global warming.
As the COP28 UN Climate Conference takes place in Dubai, scientists are warning that the effects of a 2°C rise in global temperatures will have an irreversible effect on the mountain glaciers and polar regions of the world. Climate change is thought to be affecting the world’s mountain ranges at over twice the rate of lower terrain.
As well as being a vital part of the planet’s ecosystem, mountains provide millions of people with the challenge and thrill of the great outdoors. Mountain climbing and hiking in all its various forms is one of the world’s most popular outdoor activities, as it combines adventure and a sense of achievement with the chance to observe beautiful landscapes first hand.
However, even here in the UK, climate change is starting to take its toll on some of our most precious mountain habitats and hiking routes, such as the world-famous Skye Cuillin ridge traverse, which is regarded as one of the most challenging climbing routes in Europe.
The effects of global warming is already evident in the Himalayan regions, where melting glaciers have made some established climbing routes inaccessible or riskier to navigate. Thawing permafrost has also increased the risk of rockfall in the region. This situation is set to worsen over the next decade.
In the Cairngorms National Park (CNP) in northeast Scotland, the unique alpine semi-tundra uplands are home to many rare species of flora and fauna, as well as ancient Caledonian forests. The area covers 4,528 square kilometres and is Scotland’s largest national park, and receives over 1.9 million tourist visits each year.
A 2019 study into snowfall found that there had been an overall decline in the number of days of snow cover at all elevations since 1969, which was consistent with trends in other mountain areas and data provided by the UK Meteorological Office and Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change.
The report noted: “Our initial results show a reduction in snow cover as the observed warming trend continues and accelerates. Successful global efforts to reduce emissions may moderate this impact, whilst even higher emissions rates (e.g. due to ecosystem carbon releases) may further increase impacts.”
The UN calls for more awareness of mountain ecosystems, along with nature-based solutions to protect mountains from the threat of climate change.