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Mountain landscapes are being transformed by climate change

Mountain landscapes across the world are threatened by climate change. The evolution of these landscapes could lead to hazards and environmental risks affecting nearby communities.

On the eve of COP27, a scientist from the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg highlights the sensitivity of mountains to global climate change in a new study. Professor Jasper Knight describes how complex mountain systems respond in different and unexpected ways to climate change. The study also reveals how these responses can affect mountain landscapes and communities. 

Mountain glaciers across the world are retreating due to global warming, impacting mountain landforms and the ecosystems and people that rely on them. These impacts, however, are highly variable. 

“The latest report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) treats all mountains as equally sensitive and responding in the same way to climate change. However, this approach is not correct,” said Professor Knight. “Mountains with snow and ice work completely differently to low-latitude mountains where snow and ice are generally absent. This determines how they respond to climate and what future patterns of mountain landscape evolution we can expect.” 

Globally, mountain snow and ice provide water for hundreds of millions of people. This water supply is now under threat as changing weather patterns cause glaciers to get smaller. This is expected to get worse into the future, leading to a water crisis in dry continental areas of Asia, North America, South America and Europe.

The potential impacts of climate change and human activity on mountain landscapes include an increasing risk of hazards such as avalanches, river floods and landslides. These risks are further elevated by glacier retreat and the warming of permafrost.

Mountain slopes are also becoming greener as lowland forests spread to higher altitudes. This has already threatened Alpine ecosystems and species with 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,” said Professor Knight. 

Indigenous mountain communities and cultures are also affected by climate change. Livestock and traditional agriculture are dying out as grazing areas shrink and as water becomes scarcer. These traditional practices are also impacted by tourism, mining, urbanization and commercial forestry. 

By demonstrating the connection between mountains and people, the study highlights the importance of protecting mountains against future change. “Understanding these connections can help us better protect them against the worst impacts of climate change,” said Professor Knight.  

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By Katherine Bucko, Staff Writer

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