A First Look at Canada’s Mountain Research – Building a Roadmap for the Future
article written by Kate Hanly
18.01.23 | 11:01

The Canadian Mountain Assessment (CMA) provides a first-of-its-kind look at what we know, do not know, and need to know about mountain systems in Canada.

Immense Mountain Terrain, Limited Information

In Canada, the fourth most mountainous country in the world, mountains are important elements of the landscape, covering a staggering 2.26 million2  kilometres, and to the identity of Canadians, representing important relationships between mountains and people (Figure 1). However, our understanding of the state of research in Canada’s mountain systems has been limited to date by a deficit of systematically collated information on when, what, where, and by whom mountain-related research has, and is, occurring. This has constrained our ability to synthesize key research strengths and needs, and to provide evidence for informing future mountain-focused research and policy-making activities in Canada.

CMA Fig1

Figure 1. Mountainous areas and major mountain regions in Canada based on McDowell and Guo (2021).


What Do We Know About Mountains in Canada?

The State of Mountain Research in Canada is a systematic scoping review–conducted as part of the Canadian Mountain Assessment–that characterizes the state of mountain research in the country (using peer-reviewed articles as a proxy for research activity). The purpose of this review was to highlight Canada’s important contributions to mountain research globally and also identify key knowledge gaps that must be addressed to inform future research and policy.

Working with co-author Dr. Graham McDowell, we found that overall, the amount of research focused on mountain systems in Canada has increased dramatically in recent years (e.g., 68% of articles have been published after 2000, Figure 2). However, this substantial body of work also contains notable geographical and topical gaps and biases. For example, the vast majority of research has focused on mountains in Western Canada, whereas Eastern and Northern Canada, which account for around 50% of the country’s mountainous terrain have received far less attention in research activities to date. Another key insight is that the tremendous biophysical and socio-cultural diversity of mountains in Canada (due to their geographical extensiveness) limits the transferability of results from one region to another, underscoring the need to support region-specific research activities. Further, Canadian mountain research is overwhelmingly dominated by work in the natural sciences (96% of articles), with very little social science (3%) and health science (<1%) work published to date. Interestingly, this finding mimics that of a global review on mountain literature, Rising slopes—Bibliometrics of mountain research, conducted by Gurgiser and colleagues (2022).

CMA Fig2

Figure 2. The number of publications by research approach per year.

The most well-developed research topics in Canadian mountain research relate to mountain ecology, the cryosphere, and mountain hydrology. This is unsurprising given the well-recognized importance of mountains as biodiversity hotspots and water towers. In contrast, research related to topics such as tourism and recreation; livelihoods and wellbeing; and adaptation, resilience, and transformation in mountain areas, is underrepresented in the literature, limiting our understanding of the human dimensions of life in Canada’s mountains. This paucity of social scientific work constrains Canada’s ability to plan for and adapt to the rapid environmental and socio-cultural changes taking place in Canada’s high places. Thus, our study reinforces calls for more social scientific work in mountain research.

Inspiring Future Canadian Mountain Research and Policy

This study provides insights to inform future mountain-focused research activities in Canada and aims to increase our ability to successfully navigate future challenges and opportunities in Canada’s spectacular yet increasingly imperilled mountain areas. As a Canadian whose identity is intimately connected to mountain landscapes, being involved in a study aimed at characterizing the state of mountain research and stimulating future research activities was very meaningful to me. I look forward to helping address some of the research needs we identified!

If you would like to learn more, please consider reading our article!

Citation: McDowell G, Hanly K (2022) The state of mountain research in Canada. Journal of Mountain Science 19(10). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11629-022-7569-1

Cover image: View from Abbot Pass down to Lake Oesa, photo taken by Kate Hanly.