Mountains: Canaries in the Coal Mine of Climate Change

By Imran Khan 

Mountains are known for their diverse and complex ecosystems, which provide several services to humankind. Approximately one-tenth of total human population depends on mountains for their life support. These monstrous creations of nature provide valuable services to the inhabitants as well as millions of people living in the lowlands, hundreds of kilometers away. The significance of mountains is evident from the various functions they perform.

Mountains are the water towers of the world because all the major rivers of the world originate from them, most of the minor rivers are also fed by mountainous regions and most of the urban population depends on mountains for freshwater. This water is not only used for drinking purposes, in industries and for agriculture, it also plays a crucial role in the proper functioning of an ecosystem. It provides all the necessary nutrients for aquatic life. In short, water is necessary for an ecosystem to function properly and mountain regions are the source of most of it.

Mountains play a key role in the hydrological cycle. The healthy functioning of the hydrological cycle depends on the mountains. Moisture from the atmosphere is captured by mountains, which falls in the form of snow and is stored in the mountains. The stored snow is a source of water during the spring and summer seasons. This water is used for drinking purposes, agriculture, and industries in the downstream. Water coming from the mountains contains an enormous potential of hydropower generation. The water is also used in water wheels to grind grains.

Mountain ecosystems are a source of numerous resources. Minerals, timber, medicinal plants, tea and coffee plantations, and several other valuable resources are provided by mountains. The serenity of mountain valleys, calm and peaceful environment and spectacular places make mountains the perfect tourist centers, which plays a significant role in the economy of a country.

Mountain regions are diverse. The cultural richness, in the form of various languages, dressing and traditional foods and events, found in mountain regions cannot be found anywhere else. Also, mountains are home to the greatest diversity of vascular plant species. These contributions of mountain regions for the global environment and to the beauty of the planet are unparalleled.

Along with being exceptionally important, mountain ecosystems are also fragile and vulnerable. Their fragility makes mountain regions the canaries in the coal mine of climate change. these regions are the first to experience the detrimental impacts of changing climatic conditions. The steep topography and the distinct seasonal contrasts play a vital role in initiating extreme climatic conditions, which have devastating effects on the fragile ecosystem. Mountain ecosystems are easily and severely damaged due to deforestation, diminishing pastures, increasing population and rapid urbanization in the nearby areas.

Being very sensitive to the changing climate, mountains are among the most severely impacted ecosystems. The crucial impacts of changing climate on mountain regions include decreasing water security, frequent natural disasters (flash floods, glacial lake outburst floods, landslides, rockfall, avalanches, and extreme weather conditions), economic hazards and reduced agricultural outputs resulting in increased poverty and economic instability. These impacts are clearly visible in the mountainous region of Gilgit-Baltistan and Chitral.

The mountains in Northern Pakistan are home to a huge number of glaciers. Glaciers are considered to be the most important indicators of climate change. The rising global temperatures have resulted in a faster glacial retreat, which has increased the risks of glacier-related hazards. These hazards include avalanches, the creation of artificial lakes and glacial lake outburst floods (GLOFs). Recent events of GLOF in the northern mountainous areas of Pakistan show how severe the problem is. Apart from an increased frequency of glacier-related hazards, water security is also threatened by the faster retreat of glaciers.

The increasing temperatures also affect the patterns in plant nutrition. Research shows that the changing temperature will create instability in the ecosystem, resulting in the disruption of the functioning of mountain ecosystems. Further, the variations in the climatic conditions will result in the upward shift of treelines. Consequently, this upward shift will impact the local climate and it can result in speeding up the warming process.

Considering the gravity of the situation, it should be the top priority of governments to address the problems faced by mountain areas due to climate change. An integrated approach is needed to be developed, in which indigenous knowledge and traditional ways of disaster risk reduction and impact minimization are used along with modern technologies and methods. Local communities can play a vital role in fighting climate change in the mountains; therefore, it is necessary to involve them in the process.

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