In Full Transition: Addressing the Challenges of Our Changing Mountains
article written by Wilfried Haeberli
15.09.21 | 10:09

The Mountain Research Initiative was established 20 years ago, and no doubt there are important challenges ahead that extend far beyond another 20 years of this organisation. Even at the highest (altitudinal) levels…

Indeed, one striking example of such a challenge concerns the highest altitudes, with their icy peaks, highly climate-sensitive glaciers, and deeply frozen rocks. Conditions and processes in these regions are in full transition, with important consequences for humans, their infrastructure, and livelihoods at scales from local (new landscapes), regional (catastrophic events), continental (water supply), and even to global (sea level). Many mountain ranges are rapidly losing large parts, if not all, of their glacier cover. New lakes continue to form closer and closer to steep rock walls, whose permafrost has already been warmed tens of meters below the surface. Due to slow heat diffusion at depth, this profound thermal anomaly will continue to penetrate deeper still into frozen mountainsides. Decreasing slope stability of icy peaks caused by permafrost degradation and vanishing glaciers represents an unavoidable commitment for the future.

Catastrophic mass flows like the recent Chamoli event in the Indian Himalaya are likely to increase in frequency and to become especially dangerous in connection with new lakes as risk multipliers. In order to adequately deal with such system reactions under conditions of growing imbalance, the International Association of Cryospheric Sciences (IACS) and the International Permafrost Association (IPA) established the Scientific Standing Group Glacier and Permafrost Hazards in Mountains (GAPHAZ). This organisation recently issued technical guidelines and comprehensive analyses of extraordinary events.

While hazard and risk considerations have first priority, other interests related to new landscapes and, in particular, to new lakes in deglaciating mountains are also at play. These include hydropower development, freshwater supply, tourism, and landscape protection. Potential synergies, but also conflicts, exist and give rise to basic legal questions: who owns the new landscapes, who is responsible for them, who can make use of them, what are the overall targets, and how can diverging interests be harmonized? Participatory planning must start without delay because environmental change is happening fast. Such planning needs to be based on integrative, transdisciplinary, and scenario-based quantitative as well as qualitative research, taking a larger, regional perspective in addition to focusing on individual cases. In unprotected areas, e.g., outside national parks, landscape protection tends to have a comparably difficult position. It must come in at an early stage, with strong arguments concerning realistic goals to be reached, and by referring to constructive strategies rather than limiting itself to a naysayer function. Decisions concerning safe, economically sustainable, and socio-politically acceptable developments of new landscapes in deglaciating mountain regions must be taken soon, and will have effects for generations to come.

An international scientific organisation like the MRI is optimally suited to help develop the necessary integrative and transdisciplinary scientific basis for successful adaptation by furthering international exchange of knowledge and experience. Fortunate, then, that we have the MRI with its 20 years of experience!