Why climate change adaptation in mountains is crucial

People visit the Rhone Glacier covered in blankets to prevent it from melting above Gletsch near the Furkapass in Switzerland (Credit: Keystone / Urs Flueeler)

As Europe struggles to decide what kind of bans to impose on skiing during the Christmas vacations, elsewhere specialists are discussing mountains’ resilience to climate change during International Mountain Day. At stake is how disproportionately impacted mountain regions are and what strategies can be put in place to reverse this alarming trend.

Manfred Kaufmann, programme manager at the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC):

“Global warming is more pronounced in mountain areas than in lowlands. Since the industrial revolution, temperatures have increased twice as much as the global average in the Alps and the Himalayas. In high mountain areas, water runoff is highly dependent on meltwater from glaciers and snow, so if most of the glaciers were to vanish by the end of this century as predicted, this water reservoir will no longer be available.”

Why do mountains matter? Mountains are carbon sinks, home to unique biodiversity, hosts to 13 per cent of the world’s population, more than half of global freshwater resources and receive up to 20 per cent of global tourism. But snow, ice and glaciers are melting at an unprecedented race primarily due to the effect of rising temperatures in mountain ranges. The melting of glaciers is one of the most visible, obvious and palpable consequences of climate change. We can see it in Switzerland where the Alps cover 60 per cent of its territory and rising levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere have added two degrees to average temperature compared to the global rise of one degree.

How does climate change threaten mountains? The Mountain Research Initiative (MRI), an international research collaboration network supported by the Swiss Academy of Science, published key findings on the effects of climate change on high mountain areas.

  • High emissions pathways lead to large-scale deglaciation. On the contrary, under low emission pathways up to 50 per cent of the current glacier ice could be preserved in some regions.

  • A decline in water resources due to melting glaciers is expected to result in greater competition for water. In many areas of the world mountains are considered to be the water towers.

  • Melting glaciers and thawing permafrost that stabilise the soil create new hazards like landslides and glacier lake outburst floods, increasing the risk of disaster losses for communities and infrastructure.

  • As glaciers disappear, sensitive and unique ecosystems are being degraded as a result of the loss of critical water resources.

  • Glaciers have important spiritual meaning for many mountain communities. Their disappearance implies a significant loss of cultural ecosystem services and impacts mountain people’s lives and livelihoods.

A key word: adaptation. Mitigating or reducing our carbon emissions in the atmosphere is definitely the main task at hand but regardless of the measures taken, the effects of global warming are expected to continue for a while. Adaptation is key for a sustainable development and the avoidance of conflict over scarce resources and the reduction of risks. MRI executive director, Carolina Adler, said:

“We're increasingly learning that adaptation is part of what needs to happen on climate action. Making sure that we avoid scenarios of high emissions of greenhouse gases is insufficient in itself since we are already experiencing the impacts of climate change today. We do need adaptation alongside emission reductions to make sure we have the best possible prospects to support resilience in mountain regions. At the same time, the higher the emission scenarios are the harder it will be to ensure adaptation is effective, and for resilience to be supported. They both need to be looked at quite closely since they both reinforce each other.”

How can we improve mountain resilience? The Adaptation at altitude program of the SDC supports the sustainable development of mountains and improves their resilience. Kaufmann:

“Poverty in mountain regions is more widespread than in lowland areas as mountain communities often have less income opportunities and live in very remote places. We need to make the voice of mountain people heard in national, regional and global policy agendas and develop and implement specific measures for the improvement of their livelihoods and their adaptation to a changing climate.”

SDC is working on four main targets:

  • Access to relevant data and information to track progress, monitor and report the needs of policymakers.

  • Ability to connect regions. Mountain ranges cover many regions of the world such as the Andes, the Alps or the Himalayas. Inter-boundary dialogue, regional exchanges and collaboration have to be supported.

  • Access to sufficient knowledge about how climate change and adaptation works in mountains in the relevant format in order to be shared and ensure continued learning and planning for future.

  • Insure global policies and countries incorporate Disaster Risk Reduction strategies and plans for achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals in order to protect livelihoods, infrastructure, and natural resources. They give the right support to concerned states to raise their needs during negotiations.

Switzerland’s commitment. Switzerland is part of the Alpine Convention, the world’s first treaty of international law, designed to protect mountain regions at the regional level. Around 800 areas that share the Alps are part of it. Kaufmann:

“It is unique in defining a mountain region independently of national borders as a geographical unit, and as an important heritage and economic area that faces a common set of challenges. Based on learnings from the Alpine Convention and other cooperation frameworks, we try to promote coordination and cooperation also in other regions like the Hindu Kush or the Andes through robust institutional frameworks.”

On a global level, the SDC is working on improving the livelihood of mountain communities by specifically strengthening their resilience to climate change, the governance in mountain regions promoting regional size policy process and influence national, regional and local policy processes. Switzerland also fosters knowledge generation, dialogue and capacity building on climate change adaptation in mountains like the formation of glaciologists in the Himalayas or Central Asia to help them gather data and show them how to monitor their glaciers and water sheds.