United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization
UNESCO launches Global Change Monitoring Programme

Bishkek - UNESCO's unique network of Biosphere Reserves is set to have a new role - monitoring global climate change.

Out of the 408 biosphere reserves in 94 countries, 138 are in mountain areas. And mountains are proving to be extremely sensitive to global warming. Melting glaciers have recently unleashed deadly mudslides, rare ecosystems are threatened, and a lack of snow is crippling economies that depend on winter tourism. While the data from these sites will enable scientists to draw a more accurate picture of global climate change, they may also help to offset catastrophes when hazardous conditions develop.

In a partnership with the Mountain Research Initiative (MRI) based in Berne (Switzerland), the International Human Dimensions Programme on Global Environmental Change (IHDP), and the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme (IGBP), UNESCO is selecting biosphere reserve sites from each of the major mountainous regions of the world as the focus for this new global climate change monitoring programme. And in addition to its assessment of environmental impacts, the study will also see how global change is affecting the socio-economic conditions of mountain people. UNESCO Director-General Koïchiro Matsuura will announce this project when he addresses the Global Mountain Summit, due to open in Bishkek (Kyrgyzstan) on October 29, the culminating event in the International Year of the Mountain that comes to an end in December.

The sensitivity of mountains to global climate change has gradually emerged over the past few decades. But it first attracted wide public attention in 2001 when Professor Lonnie Thompson of Ohio State University forecast that Mount Kilimanjaro (Tanzania) will have lost its famous snow-capped peak by 2015 if current predictions on global warming are maintained. The mountain, he claimed, has already lost some 82% of its permafrost since 1912 - and 33% of this in the past two decades. And while the extra water from the melting glacier may be increasing the fertility of adjacent lowland areas in the short-term, water supplies would become critically low if it disappears.

A similar picture can be seen all over the world. In mid-September, the Kolka Glacier in the Caucasus Mountains collapsed, submerging villages in the Republic of North Ossetia (Russian Federation) under thousands of tons of ice and rock, killing over 120 people. Meanwhile, all 37 named glaciers in the Glacier National Park in Montana (USA) have shrunk dramatically in the past 150 years, with the Sperry Glacier losing 11% of its volume between 1979-1993 and the Grinnell Glacier retreating by 63% between 1938-1993, according to the U.S. Geological Survey (see http://www.nrmsc.usgs.gov/research/glacier_retreat.htm). USGS predicts that all the glaciers will be gone by 2030 if present warming rates continue.

Europe's Alps are not spared either. In July, emergency workers pumped out a 16-hectare lake formed by the melting Belvedere Glacier on Monte Rosa in Italy, when it threatened to burst the dyke of boulders that had been containing it and flood the Italian village of Macugnaga. "From 1850 to 1980 Alpine glaciers lost half their volume, on average," says mountain expert Bruno Messerli of the University of Berne (Switzerland). "And in the 20 years from 1980-2000 a quarter of what was left was also lost. There will still be a bit of the 23km Aletsch glacier left at the end of the century, because it is 900m deep in places. But a lot of other areas will disappear."

The UN Environment Programme (UNEP) is currently monitoring lakes that have formed as glaciers melt. In the Himalayas alone, some 44 glacier lakes are filling so rapidly that they could burst their debris retaining walls in the next four or five years, in what are known as 'glacial lake outburst floods' (GLOFs). While GLOFs are not a new phenomenon, according to UNEP, there is evidence that they are becoming more common as glaciers retreat, putting in danger the towns and villages that lie beneath them.

Glaciers melt naturally during the summer and the phenomenon is not, in itself, a sign of global warming. Under stable climatic conditions, the ice lost through melting is replenished by winter precipitation in the form of snow. And the melt water forms an essential part of many of the world's major rivers. "But,' adds Mel Reasoner, Director of the Mountain Research Initiative, "in many arid and semi-arid areas, people are dependent not only on the amount of glacier melt water, but on the timing of the water flow. The water has to be available at critical times for irrigation. Snow-pack and glaciers provide a buffer between when the precipitation falls as snow and when it is released as water. The melt season is often the warmest, driest time of the year, providing large volumes of runoff for irrigation when it is most needed."

But in many of the world's mountains, there is less precipitation today in the form of snowfall, as winters have become shorter and warmer. Combined with warmer summer temperatures, this creates a net loss for the glacier, even if, in the short-term, the extra melt water is welcome in adjacent lowland areas. "But," warns Mr Reasoner, "where agriculture has become dependent on the seasonal melt water, if you remove the glacier you no longer have a source of stored water that is available throughout the summer."

The idea of using biosphere reserves in mountain areas for global change research would be an extension of the Global Observation Research Initiative in Alpine Environments (GLORIA) project, an international research network that is looking at the effects of global change on alpine vegetation by making standardized observations in parallel sites (see http://www.gloria.ac.at/res/gloria_home/). GLORIA has already launched research in mountain sites in Europe and is now looking to extend the work globally. "It is a unique opportunity to have access to biosphere reserves in all the big mountain areas of the world," says Mr Messerli.

Mountain ecosystems are well suited for research to track global climate change. "The upper ecosystem from the upper vegetation limit to the glacier is essentially the same over all climatic zones from the North Pole to the Antarctic," says Mr Messerli. "A glacier and the permafrost on Kilimanjaro is the same as in the Alps or the Himalayas."

At the same time, mountain ecosystems change dramatically over very short distances, with just small changes in altitude. And this makes them particularly useful indicators. For example, at higher altitudes only certain plant and animal species can survive under long periods of snow and ice cover. But with global warming these areas are shrinking, so that plants adapted to the warmer, lower habitats slowly invade the higher elevations. The shifts in these ecosystem boundaries provide an index of global climate change, which can be observed and compared in all continents of the world, using standard sets of climatic measurements, such as precipitation and temperature. And other factors driving global change, like radiation, soil erosion, changing soil conditions and demographic pressures, are also very noticeable in mountain regions.

Mountain biosphere reserves have another advantage for global comparisons. Their so-called "core" areas are relatively free of human activity. Outside these core areas, and at lower altitudes, the culture and farming practices of mountain people can have profound effects on local ecology, making the effects of climate change difficult to distinguish from those directly due to human activities. Even the German word 'Alp' refers to mountain pastures reclaimed from naturally forested areas. "And", says Mr Reasoner, "the structure of mountain biosphere reserves makes them ideal natural laboratories for investigating highland-lowland interrelationships."

Mountain people are also particularly vulnerable to other natural hazards, such as volcanic eruptions, avalanches, floods and earthquakes, even without the risk from GLOFs. Mountains are naturally high-energy environments, being formed by the collision of plates of the earth's crust that, at least for 'young' ranges like the Alps, Andes, and Himalayas, are still moving. Global warming, coupled with changes in land use, such as deforestation, or extensive terracing, increases the risks. The heaviest rains for three decades brought floods and landslides to Nepal in July this year, killing some 187 people and cutting off the Kathmandu Valley from the rest of the country.

The sensitivity of mountains to global warming is also having an impact on local economies that depend on tourism. "Below 1500m the ski stations in the Alps can no longer continue," says Mr Messerli. "The ski lifts are closing. The big banks will no longer give loans for new ski industry constructions." Reasoner confirms this. "A lot of the low-elevation ski stations did not open this year and many are seeing a significant drop in revenue. If the winter snow-line moves up 1000m in the next 100 years the ski industry is going to look very different to the way it does now. Already, ski areas are eying expansion into higher undeveloped areas in the Alps, which is meeting stiff resistance from environmental groups. And this is creating conflict between interests that really should be working together." Ski resorts in North America are reporting a similar decline (e.g. See www.socc.uwaterloo.ca/snow/snow_synopsis_e.cfm). According to the World Resources Institute, a lack of snow could also threaten the future of Winter Olympic Games. But it could simply mean that the Games move to northern venues, like Norway, where global warming has increased winter precipitation and where glaciers are growing - even if the winters are still getting shorter.


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Contact: Peter Coles
UNESCO Bureau of Public Information, Editorial Section
Tel: (+33) (0)6 1469 5498

Notes for editors

  • About 500 million people, 10 percent of the world's population, live in uplands and mountains.
  • Mountain areas are the source of water for more than half the world's population.
  • All the world's major rivers originate in mountain areas, in the form of precipitation as rain and snow stored temporarily as ice, released in spring and summer melt periods.
  • In arid and semiarid areas mountains provide 70-95% of downstream freshwater. In areas with higher rainfall the figure is 30-60%.
  • High elevation water flows power many hydro-electric plants.
  • Mining pollutes mountain water.
  • Mountains are fragile ecosystems. Their soil is thin, therefore unstable, which limits growth of plants and makes them more vulnerable to human disturbance. They take a long time to recover once damaged. They also have a long history of economic exploitation and political neglect.
  • In mountainous areas of developing countries transport links may be scarce, access to markets poor, high population growth, limited employment possibilities.
  • Mountain populations in Nepal, Ethiopia, and Peru are among the world's poorest (FAO 1995).
  • Mountains are storehouses for crop genes and much of remaining genetic diversity subsists there.
  • The International Potato Centre in Lima has the world's largest bank of potato germ plasm, with 5,000 distinct types.
  • In the tropics, mountain forests have the fastest rate of loss of diversity - about 1,1 percent a year.
  • The mountains of central Asia are home to over 5,500 species of flowering plants.
  • Ten percent of all bird species are found only or primarily in cloud forests in mountains
  • Protection is given by 138 biosphere reserves, 150 parks and reserves above 1500m and 39 World Heritage sites.
  • Some 90% mountain cloud forests have disappeared from the northern Andes - as a result of grazing, food production, wood, mining, road building, fires.
  • Mt Kinabalu is believed to contain one of the richest diversities of plants in the world.
    Mountain tourism generates about US$70-90 m worldwide a year which is about 154-20% of global tourist industry.
  • There are 65-70 million downhill skiers worldwide (1999)
  • In Switzerland - the tree-line is now 200-300m lower than its natural limit.
  • There were 29 landslides / avalanches in 2000, killing 1,099 people
  • Avalanches and landslides caused over $1.2 billion damage in the Americas in 1991-2000 and $366 million in Asia

    Top 10 highest towns and cities
    City/country Metres Feet

    Wenchuan, China 5099 16,730
    Potosi, Bolivia 3976 13,045
    Oruro, Bolivia 3702 12,146
    Lhassa, Tibet (China) 3684 12,087
    La Paz, Bolivia 3632 11,916
    Cuzco, Peru 3399 11,152
    Huancayo, Peru 3249 10,660
    Sucre,Bolivia 2835 9,301
    Tunja, Colombia 2820 9,252
    Quito, Ecuador 2819 9,249

    Nine of the ten highest mountain peaks in the world are all in the Himalayas

    Mountain peak Range Location Ft M
    Everest Himalayas Nepal/Tibet (China) 29,035 8,850
    K2 Karakoram Pakistan/China 28,250 8,611
    Kanchenjunga Himalayas India/Nepal 28,169 8,586
    Lhotse I Himalayas Nepal/Tibet (China) 27,940 8,516
    Makalu I Himalayas Nepal/Tibet (China) 27,766 8,463
    Cho Oyu Himalayas Nepal/Tibet (China) 26,906 8,201
    Dhaulagiri Himalayas Nepal 26,795 8,167
    Manaslu I Himalayas Nepal 26,781 8,163
    Nanga Parbat Himalayas Pakistan 26,660 8,125
    Annapurna Himalayas Nepal 26,545 8,091

    Author(s) UNESCOPRESS
    Source Press Release No.2002-83
    Publication Date 27 Oct 2002
    © UNESCO 1995-2007 - ID: 7235