Bridging Past and Present: Reviving Humboldt's Approach to Mountain Research in the Face of Climate Change
article written by Olivier Dangles
27.11.23 | 03:11

The idea for Climate Change on Mountains: Reviving Humboldt’s Approach to Science started forming in my mind in 2015, halfway through co-writing the textbook Ecology of High-altitude Waters with my friend Dean Jacobsen. While I was well versed in the dry style of scientific papers, the textbook allowed me a creative freedom that stimulated my desire to write about scientific practices, discoveries, and beyond. A crossover book with a wider audience in mind seemed an appealing next step.

Navigating the Impacts of Climate Change

And so I started working on a book about the ecological effects of climate change in the tropical Andes—my scientific focus over the last decade—that would blend compelling scientific findings with personal memoirs. My objective was to share my first-hand experience with the accelerating impacts of climate change in tropical mountains, the effects caused by rising temperatures, melting glaciers, and changing precipitation patterns. In the field, I have observed the wide-ranging impacts these changes are having on ecosystems—the shifts in plant and animal populations, and the increased risk of natural disasters.

Pictured above: Connecting with a bear. A perfect photo opportunity of an Andean bear in the páramo of Cayambe-Coca National Park, Ecuador, and a reciprocal exchange between human and non-human. Photo by Olivier Dangles.

Working with South American researchers and students in the natural outdoor laboratory of the Andes, we investigated how insects, plants, and vertebrates are coping with altered temperatures and water availability. To better understand how nature here will face the challenges created by rapidly warming conditions, we measured the physical environment using the latest technologies, collected and surveyed biological communities in remote places, conducted lab and field experiments, worked with local communities, and developed tools and models to analyze the data. In its early stage, this book was distantly inspired by the geographer and polymath Alexander von Humboldt, who spent five years exploring the forests and mountains of tropical South America where he observed the interconnectedness of mountain ecosystems and their vulnerability to environmental changes.

Humboldt’s Legacy: A 250th Anniversary Celebration

Then came 2019, the 250th anniversary of Humboldt’s birth (he was born in 1769), and an explosion of international publications and events paying tribute to him. While venerated in his time, Humboldt’s holistic approach, combining science, the humanities, and the arts—the rational and the sensory—had been lost over the twentieth century. The issues of the twenty-first century brought it back into fashion, and for this 250th anniversary hundreds of symposiums, special issues, books, articles, new editions, and translations of his works appeared, many of which argued that Humboldt’s worldview would help achieve better science and a more sustainable future. Laura Dassow Wall, who wrote The Passage to Cosmos: Alexander von Humboldt and the Shaping of America in 2009, arguing for Humboldt’s modern importance, seemed to see her wish fulfilled.

Pictured above: Insightful and beautiful mountains. Alexander Humboldt was a pioneer in combining art and science in the illustrations of his works. Based on information collected by Humboldt (and with his encouragement) German geographer and cartographer Heinrich Karl Wilhelm Berghaus (1797–1884) produced beautifully engraved hand-colored thematic maps such as these plant variation altitudinal profiles for the Andes and Tenerife. Note the presence of the Antisana hacienda that Humboldt mistakenly believed to be the highest inhabited place in the world. Modified from Berghaus (1852), Physikalischer Atlas. Provided by Olivier Dangles.

Challenges in Humboldtian Discourse: Exploring Practical Application

But there was something that bothered me in all this buzz around Humboldt: these contributions preached for Humboldt’s model, but none really explained how to put it into practice. Does Humboldt have a place in science today? If so, how? How can we learn from his writings and philosophy to do better science, to get a broader understanding of the world, and to protect the Earth? I could not find these answers in what I read or heard about Humboldt. Yet, all my years working on the impacts of climate change in the tropical Andes had given me a sort of “universal” perspective not unlike his that I felt would be worth sharing. So rather than a distant mentor, Humboldt became a major protagonist in this book. While the focus is on the effects of climate change on mountains, the story weaves in anecdotes that illuminate Humboldt’s approach to science, which I believe is crucial to tackling the challenges we face today.

Reviving Humboldt: A Scientist’s Perspective on Methodology

As a practicing scientist, for me “reviving Humboldt” is not about celebrating his memory as a historical figure, but about a careful reading of his texts, his extensive footnotes, his complex drawings and figures, his endless data tables; it is about drawing links from his expeditions and records to contemporary studies; it is about embracing his way of thinking by not being restricted to an academic silo but integrating different disciplines in science, the arts, and humanities; it is about merging the rational and the sensory, logic and the imagination, the textual and the visual. Above all, it is a way of perceiving the world in which everything is connected: people, disciplines, places, and historical eras. I hope that this book contributes to “reviving Humboldt” in this sense.

Read the book


Dangles, O. (2023). Climate Change on Mountains: Reviving Humboldt’s Approach to Science. Springer.

Cover image: The páramo of Mt Antisana with Mt Cotopaxi in the background. Above 3500 m in the Ecuadorian Andes, the green carpeted hills of the páramo punctuated by icy summits are a naturalist’s paradise, both rich in endemic species and one of the most scenic places on Earth. Photo by Olivier Dangles.