Why Mountains?

Mountains and More

Upon seeing the name of our organization, one may wonder what "sustainable mountain development" means and why the reference to mountains is a part of our identity and mission. "Sustainable mountain development" is a term that was introduced into "Agenda 21," the plan for action that emerged from the 1992 Earth Summit held in Rio de Janeiro. A group organized in Rio, calling itself the "Mountain Agenda," realized that mountains needed to be placed on the global agenda, along with climate change, deforestation, and desertification. Since 1992 a number of global organizations and structures for research and cooperation have come into existence, including the Mountain Research Initiative, and the Mountain Partnership. Similar organizations have also developed in countries around the world. All of these organizations have responded to a deficit in global understanding and structures that have, until recently, failed to give sufficient attention to mountain ecologies and communities, and the relationship of mountains to the rest of the planet.  

You will here find a short summary of information related to mountains, but it is critical to understand that even as Summit developed from a concern for the lack of due attention for mountain peoples and geographies, we now give our entire attention to the planet and its peoples across ecologies, geographies, and political boundaries. This is simply to say that we are unbounded in our concern for sustainable development and conflict transformation everywhere.  

What Are Mountains and Why Do They Matter?

An ordinary thought about mountains is that they are defined by elevation. But, perhaps surprisingly, they are not. Scientists have agree upon criteria and standards used to define mountains. The process that began this agreement was the US Geological Survey's creation of a database that recorded the average altitude of every square kilometer of the Earth's surface. Scientifically, or technically, a mountain is defined by the relief of its landscape. It is about the difference in altitude between its highest and lowest points, that is, about the "roughness" of the topography. It was agreed that all topography more than 2,500 meters above sea level are mountainous. But in addition, any topography altitude where the low to high variance varies by at least 300 meters over a radius of 7 kilometers, is also mountainous terrain. This analysis means that mountains cover 35.8 million square kilometers, or 24% of the Earth's land surface. What is the planet's highest mountain? The reader may be thinking "Everest." But more accurately, it is Mauna Loa, in Hawaii. It is the tallest mountain because the difference in altitude from its base on the ocean floor to its summit is 10.2 kilometers (with only 4,169 meters above sea level). Mount Everest, by the way, is 8.848 meters above sea level. How many people live on mountain geography? About 720 million, or 12% of the world's population do so (and another 14% live very close to mountains).  

Mountains are important for many reasons, among them are the following. First, they modify climate across the planet. Mountain regions include some of the wettest and driest places on Earth—but they influence climates at all scales everywhere. In a sense, all people are "mountain people," insofar as all are affected by mountains. Second, mountain people suffer disproportionately from marginalization, poverty and other forms of structural violence—and are particularly vulnerable to the destructive impacts of climate change (although, obviously, people on the lowest coastlines are most at risk). Third, mountain communities also suffer disproportionately from direct violence. Here, we note that many state borders are found in mountain regions, indeed mountain ranges are used as the borders between states. Fourth, mountains are the world's "water towers," providing much of the Earth's fresh water. Fifth, in addition to water, mountains are resource rich, providing timber, minerals, fisheries, and more. Sixth, mountains are crucial locations of biodiversity. For example, the Alps host about 4,500 vascular plant species—more than a third of the entire European flora. The total moss diversity of the five tropical Andean countries is estimated to be 7.5 times higher than that of the entire Amazon basin. The Andes are part of the Earth's 34 "biodiversity hotspots" identified by Conservation International.  

The World's Water Towers

Here, just a bit more about mountains as the source of Earth's fresh water. All of the world's major rivers originate in the mountains. Between a third and a half of all freshwater flows from mountain areas. Billions of people rely on mountain water for agriculture, domestic use, energy, fisheries, industry, transport, and more. Note that 65 countries use over 75% of the available freshwater for food production. These include China, Egypt, and India. The river basins of these 65 countries cover over 40% of the Earth's land surface and are home to over 50% of the world's population. In arid and semi-arid regions, mountains are "wet islands" and provide 70-95% of the flow too nearby lowlands.  

Whereas shrinking glaciers will bring more water to both mountains and lowlands in the short term, in the long run, this fact is ominous. Where steep gradients are found, energy generation potential is also present. Large dams and their concomitant power grids are enormously expensive. Much more promising is energy generation through micro-hydroelectric technologies. Small turbines can be installed in streams and rivers. There are already over 2,000 such micro-hydroplants in Nepal, and many places where they are needed, for example, in Central Asia. Hydropower provides about 20% of the electricity in over 150 countries, and there is great potential for more development. For example, even Nepal and Ethiopia have developed only 1% of their micro-hydroelectric potential. As has been the case throughout human history, the scarcity of water and the fragility of water systems, creates sites of conflict. Since the early 1950s, 37 acute international disputes over water have occurred (most consistently, between Israel and its neighbors); and over 150 treaties have been signed around these conflicts. Clearly, the 21st century demands innovative strategies, especially in respect to micro-hydroelectric technologies, the use of more sophisticated international agreements, and greater water security for many around the globe. In addition, because some of the highest rural population densities in the world are in tropical mountain areas, conflict arises over scarce resources beyond water alone. For this reason, agroforestry technologies, the development of ecosystems that are similar to, and integrated in, an area's natural ecosystem, must be improved and proliferated.

Climate Change in the Mountains    

Mountains are where the primary cause of climate change has been measured most, and where crucial evidence of its effects can be seen. Two of the most compelling indicators of climate change are stunning glacier melt, and the upward movement of plants and some animal species on mountain slopes. Nearly all the world's glaciers are shrinking. The World Glacier Monitoring Service has used standardized data since 1986, and the analysis of the global community of relevant scientists, shows that the warming of the Earth's atmosphere and the deposition of fine particles of black carbon on the surface of glaciers, are leading to their demise. Over the past century, more than 600 glaciers worldwide have disappeared. Over the past three decades, the total glacier area of Nepal decreased by 24% at an average rate of 38 square kilometers a year. In the Andes, the rate loss of Peru's glaciers have more than tripled from 1964-75 to 1976-2010. Glaciers in the Alps are losing 2 to 3% of their area and volume each year. Iceland, which is warming at four times the average rate for the northern hemisphere, is losing 11 billion tons of ice each year.

Climate change on this scale creates dramatic impacts on ecosystems. Eliminating some species, proliferating others, and changing the fragile and interconnected dynamics of natural systems. For example, since the mid-1990s, a major outbreak of  mountain pine beetle has affected thousands of square kilometers of pine forest in western North America. Why? Because a generation of beetles now takes one year to be born instead of two years. The hot and dry summers, and mild winters, mean more beetles survive. Globally, 140 million people live in river basins where at least 25% of the annual flows come from glacier melt (90% of the population at risk lives in Asia). Warmer temperatures create more precipitation in the form of rain, and less in the form of snow. Hence, cycles of floods alternating with drought are created. All of these changes are occurring as world population grows, bringing an increased demand for water, food, energy, and other resources that depend on mountain water. These escalating dynamics thus affect one another as triggers that create a cascading effect of increasingly troublesome challenges. A further set of challenges will come from the melting of permafrost:  soil, bedrock, and other material that ordinarily remains below freezing for years. Another challenge on the rise is the increased frequency of mountain fires, as summers become hotter and drier. For example, in the Swiss Alps, from the 1980s to the 2000s, lightening-caused fires increased by 21%.

Reduction in water sources and security, the spread of pests and diseases to ever higher altitudes, and crop yield decrease create higher risks of hunger, malnutrition, and starvation. Malnutrition itself makes people more susceptible to disease, for example, to malaria, which has been on the rise as the territory suitable to malaria carrying mosquitoes has increased (e.g., in East Africa, Bolivia, Thailand, and central China).

Despite the many complex challenges, mountains provide particular opportunities in respect to two imperatives generated by climate change: minimizing greenhouse gas emissions, or storing carbon; and the generation of renewable energy. Mountain forests are significant stores of carbon, and therefore managing these forests (radically reducing deforestation) is important (a strategy and value increasingly recognized with urgency by the United Nations and other multilateral organizations). The topography of mountain areas offer significant potential for the generation of renewable energy; not only in terms of water use, but also in regard to solar and wind technologies.

We hope this brief summary of mountains and their importance communicates some reasons why the Summit Knowledge and Action Network began as a project focused on mountains and mountain communities. We have now expanded our mission to encompass the Earth's geographies and peoples far more comprehensively, but mountains remain a research and development niche for us.   


The summary above is drawn from Martin F. Price, Mountains: A Very Short Introduction (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015). Price is Director of the Centre for Mountain Studies at the University of the Highlands and Islands, Scotland; and the UNESCO Chair in Sustainable Mountain Development. He is also a professor at the University of Bergen, Norway; and has worked with many international organizations including the FAO, IUCN, UNEP, UNESCO, and the WWF. Dr. Price is a member of the Summit Board of Advisors.