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A Global-Scale Impact on Mountains Due to Climate Change

A new study has shown that climate change will negatively affect mountain landscapes and create growing risks like river floods, avalanches, and landslides.

A Global-Scale Impact on Mountains Due to Climate Change

Image Credit: University of the Witwatersland Johannesburg.

With climate change threatening them, mountain ranges around the world are in danger of changing, posing risks to communities around them.

This is based on the perspective of a researcher from the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa, who on the eve of the COP27 climate meeting stresses the sensitivity of mountains to global climate change.

Professor Jasper Knight, from the School of Geography, Archaeology, and Environmental Studies at Wits University, shows how complicated mountain systems react in sometimes sudden ways to climate change, as well as how these changes could impact communities and surrounding landscapes.

Worldwide, mountain glaciers are in retreat 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 (IPCC) treats all mountains as equally sensitive and responding in the same way to climate change. However, this approach is not correct.

Jasper Knight, Professor, School of Geography, Archaeology and Environmental Studies, Wits University

Knight added, “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.”

Throughout the world, mountain snow and ice offer water to hundreds of millions of people, but this water supply is being threatened due to altering weather patterns and glacier reduction. In the future, the water crisis happening in continental regions of North America, South America, Asia, and Europe will only get worse.

Also, the study displays how climate change will negatively affect human activity and mountain landscapes. This consists of an increased threat of risks like avalanches, landslides, river floods, debris flows, and lake outburst floods.

These are made worse due to glacier retreat and permafrost warming. Already, endemic species and alpine ecosystems are subjected to increased risk on mountain slopes.

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.

Jasper Knight, Professor, School of Geography, Archaeology and Environmental Studies, Wits University

Furthermore, mountain communities and cultures are impacted by climate change. Transhumance—shifting livestock from one grazing ground to another in a seasonal cycle—and conventional agriculture are in danger of extinction as grazing areas shrink and water becomes scarcer.

The new study reveals that mountains must be valued and safeguarded as integrated socioecological and biophysical systems, where people, as well as physical landscapes, are considered significant. This might help protect these areas from further change.

Despite not having significant snow or ice, African mountains are also vulnerable. Our work on climate and landscape change and human adaptations in the Maloti–Drakensberg shows how mountains and people are connected together, and these are also threatened. Understanding these connections can help us better protect them against the worst impacts of climate change.

Jasper Knight, Professor, School of Geography, Archaeology and Environmental Studies, Wits University

Journal Reference:

Knight, J (2022) Scientists’ warning of the impacts of climate change on mountains. PeerJ.


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