Last week the High Mountain Summit, established by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), convened in Geneva, Switzerland. WMO, an agency within the United Nations (UN) organized the conference to address changes to high mountain ecosystems as a result of rising global temperatures. WMO released a short video detailing the environmental changes occurring in high mountain regions and the importance of adapting to these changes.
Global climate change is threatening high mountain ecosystems, endangering wildlife and human populations alike. Approximately half of the world’s population relies on freshwater sourced from mountain ecosystems. Although, changes to seasonal runoff threatens this freshwater source. Retreating glaciers and changes to precipitation patterns increase the risk of flooding and avalanches. Flooding, avalanches, and lack of available freshwater impact human health and safety as well as local economies.
The UN General Assembly Resolution on Sustainable Mountain Development recognized the seriousness of threats from changing mountain ecosystems, warning they could have severe effects. The resolution states, “despite the progress that has been made in promoting sustainable development of mountain regions and conservation of mountain ecosystems, including their biodiversity, the prevalence of poverty, food insecurity, social exclusion, environmental degradation and exposure to the risk of disasters is still high.” In fact, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN, the population of people living in mountain regions increased between 2000 and 2012 and the number of people in mountain communities in developing countries vulnerable to food insecurity jumped by 30%.
The High Mountain Summit was organized to increase dialogue, connect decision makers, local stakeholders, draw links between policy and science, and create a science-based action plan for addressing changes to high mountain ecosystems. According to the High Mountain Summit website, the main concerns dealt with at the summit included environmental changes in high mountain cryosphere, effects of these changes on both ecosystems and communities downstream, and water resource availability.
The High Mountain Summit came on the heels of the publication of the most recent IPCC report. In September, the IPCC released the “Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate”, which included an entire chapter devoted specifically to high mountain regions. The issue of global temperature changes and their impacts on high mountain ecosystems appears to be a growing concern for both governmental organizations and individual communities. A GlacierHub article published last month addressed effects of the melting Chiatibo Glacier on the nearby village of Bumburet in Pakistan. Situated in the Hindu Kush mountain range, Bumburet has experienced devastating flooding and landslides, threatening the community’s way of life.
Visibility of issues related to changing mountain environments will likely increase as concerns continue to grow. The next conference to look out for will be the UN Climate Change Conference, which is being held at IFEMA-Feria de Madrid in Madrid, Spain from the 2nd to the 13th of December, 2019.
Historical photographs of Glacier National Park provide a glimpse into the past. The national park in Montana hasdigitized photos from the 1940s through the 1960s, which are available through the MontanaMemory Project. Funding from the federal Library Services and Technology Act and support from Glacier National Park Conservancy made the project possible. The old photographs were originally commissioned by the publicity department of the Great Northern Railway and were used as promotional pieces, encouraging tourism to the park. The railway promoted legislation that led to the establishment of Glacier National Park and the president of the company invested in local hotels, boats, roads, and chalets. The railway developed the slogan “See America First” to promote tourism to the park.
The digitized photographs reveal what tourism was like in the mid-20th century. The photos show tourists experiencing the glaciers, mountains and lakes within the park through a range of activities. They depict the Many Glacier Hotel, Glacier Park Lodge, scenic tours, boating activities on picturesque lakes, and horseback riding through the mountainous landscape.
Today, Glacier National Park is still a popular tourist attraction, but its landscape has changed drastically in the decades since the photographs were taken. According to the Glacier National Park website, when the park was first established in 1910 it was home to more than 100 glaciers. There were still 35 named and active glaciers within the park as of 1966. However, by 2015 there were only 26 named glaciers remaining. Glaciers within the park are melting, with some having lost as much as 85% of surface area. The recently digitized photos are a wonderful throwback. Additionally, they provide evidence of a landscape marked by climate change. Visit Glacier National Park’s official website to learn more about its melting glaciers and to view side by side photographs of glaciers in the early 1900’s and today.
Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, captured the world’s attention and made melting glaciers and skinny polar bears the poster child for climate change. On nearly the opposite side of the globe, one of New Zealand’s national treasures has exhibited signs of global climate change for decades but has remained a relatively unknown issue.
The study, “Implications of a changing alpine environment for geotourism: A case study from Aoraki/Mount Cook, New Zealand,” published in June in the Journal of Outdoor Recreation and Tourism, details the effects of melting glaciers on the landscape of Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park and examines how this impacts geotourism and visitor experience within the park.
Tourism accounts for a fair share of New Zealand’s economy. According to Dr. Susanne Becken, Investment Advisor at New Zealand’s Department of Conservation, tourism makes up 4-5% of the nation’s GDP, and an even greater percentage of its employment. Tourists travel to New Zealand to immerse themselves in nature, and geotourism and ecotourism are popular draws.
Unfortunately for those who rely on tourism, Dr. Becken believes the industry has seen its heyday. Climate change threatens New Zealand’s natural environment, affecting Kiwis and tourists alike. Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park contains some of the largest glaciers and highest mountain peaks in New Zealand and is a destination for local and international hikers, climbers, skiers and more. However, these glaciers are shrinking rapidly.
Thinning and receding glaciers have made hiking more dangerous within the park. Guided hikes of the Tasman Glacier were a popular tourist attraction in the 1900s, but thinning ice temporarily halted tours as early as the 1950’s. In the last 40-50 years, glacier recession in Aoraki/Mount Cook has also led to the development of proglacial lakes. These lakes result from receding glaciers, as their meltwater fills the landforms left by the glaciers. Today, boat tours on the proglacial lakes have emerged as a new sight-seeing opportunity. Thus, glacier retreat has presented a mixed-bag, resulting in increased dangers for hikers and skiers, but also providing alternative tourist opportunities.
Another response to glacier retreat in Aoraki/Mount Cook has been the increased use of airplanes and helicopters to access glaciers and mountains in the park. Helicopters and planes with retractable skis have allowed glacier tours to continue and are a safer way for hikers, climbers, and hunters to access the mountains. Although it may seem like a drop in the bucket in terms of emissions, increased aircraft usage within the park does not correlate with environmentally conscious practices. In terms of visitor experience, increased aircraft usage was found to be unpopular with other visitors to the park. The study determined that 26% of visitors who walked or hiked in the park were displeased by the aircraft activity above.
In addition to the challenges presented by receding glaciers, Dr. Heather Purdie, senior lecturer at the University of Canterbury, and lead author of this study, says increased number of visitors to the park stretches resources and infrastructure thin, making sustainability an even greater challenge. Dr. Becken confirmed that just this year, the park reached a record number of tourists at 1,000,000 visitors. For this reason, balancing environmental sustainability and visitor numbers is an increasingly difficult but essential task. As Dr. Purdie said, “People come from all around the world to enjoy our beautiful landscape. If we go down the path of overcrowding as seen in many other iconic tourist destinations, then not only will our environment suffer but we will lose the fundamental attraction.”
Researchers used a mixed-methods approach of visitor surveys and interviews with relevant sources to determine the results of the study. According to Dr. Purdie, the results of the study helped researchers “understand how observed changes in the physical world is actually experienced by people.” Unfortunately, the results determined that most visitors were largely unaffected by glacier retreat. Of those surveyed, 56% of visitors were satisfied with their experience in the park.
Visitor experience may in part be owed to Aoraki mountain, which is the main draw for tourists. Key sources interviewed in Dr. Purdie’s study also acknowledged that most visitors are visiting the park for the first time and may not recognize the significance of glacier retreat. The sources interviewed for the study were composed of park managers, scientists, tour operators, and professional and recreational alpinists. The mountains and glaciers within Aoraki/Mount Cook have sentimental value for many interviewees. Those interviewed provided crucial insight as they continually visited the park and watched the landscape change over time. These key sources expressed fear of further physical changes to the park from both environmental and economic perspectives. One interviewee remembered visiting the park decades before bringing their children and noted how drastically the park had changed between visits.
Climate change has left its mark on Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park, visible in the receding glaciers and growing proglacial lakes. Researchers involved in the study are hopeful that geotourism can promote sustainability among visitors to New Zealand and lead discussions of climate-related issues. Dr. Purdie emphasized this, saying, “Quality geotourism can be an important tool to teach people about our wonderful environment.” She stressed that “trying to find a balance between tourism and environmental sustainability,” must be a priority moving forward. In the meantime, she and fellow researchers are “keen to highlight the issue to hopefully stimulate some thinking around this issue.” Dr. Purdie and her fellow authors have conducted research in Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park for years. They have watched the changes to the mountains and glaciers in the park unfold and plan to continue to monitor glacier and environmental changes within the park.
The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge traveled earlier this month to a remote Pakistani village, Bumburet, in the Hindu Kush to view the Chiatibo Glacier. The royal visit is notable because it is the first time the couple has seen a melting glacier.
In a two and a half minute video published by Sky News, the couple discusses climate change and interacts with members of a nearby community.
As a result of rising temperatures in the region, Chiatibo is retreating at a rate of 10 meters each year. Melting glaciers in the Hindu Kush and Himalayas threaten drinking water supplies for 1.6 billion people. Bumburet was hit in 2015 by intense flooding and a landslide, which destroyed homes, a police station, and agricultural lands.
The most recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, published Sept. 25, describes the dire state of the world’s oceans and cryosphere and the projected consequences of human-caused climate change. In addition to describing the risk of long-term depletion of water resources, such as at Chiatibo, the report also highlights the risk of flooding and landslides brought about by glacial melt.
The Kalash people of Bumberet have a rich history and culture that pre-dates both Islam and Christianity. But the 2015 flooding left them with lingering anxiety, Sky reports. Some villagers have proposed moving to higher elevations in order to escape the dangers brought about glacier melt, highlighting the extent to which climate change is threatening societies that have endured harsh climates for centuries.