Making Connections at the 2019 International Mountain Conference

This article was republished with permission from the Mountain Research Initiative.

In early September, over 500 mountain researchers came together at the heart of the Tyrolean Alps in Innsbruck, Austria in order to engage in in-depth, cross-disciplinary discussions at the International Mountain Conference (IMC) 2019. Their aim? To further develop global understanding of mountain systems, their responses, and resiliencies. 

A member of the IMC 2019 scientific steering committee, the Mountain Research Initiative was well-represented throughout the conference by the MRI Coordination Office, its Principal Investigators, and members of the Science Leadership Council (SLC).

Interdisciplinary mountain research: Past, present, and future

Addressing a packed auditorium during the IMC 2019 Opening Ceremony, Professor Martin Price, Director of the Centre for Mountain Studies at the University of the Highlands and Islands in Scotland, set the tone for the week ahead with a journey through the history of interdisciplinary mountain research. The driving force behind the three highly successful Perth mountain conferences that took place previously — a strong legacy upon which the IMC 2019 aimed to build — Price handed the mountain conference baton onwards to Professor Stefan Mayr, Head of the Research Area Mountain Regions at the University of Innsbruck, to resounding applause.

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MRI’s Carolina Adler pictured with other members of the IMC 2019 Steering Committee.

Following this exploration of the past, the MRI’s Executive Director Dr. Carolina Adler looked to the future in a speech that introduced ways of enabling global change research on mountains based on the experiences garnered by the MRI since its inception in 2001. In doing so, Adler outlined three key conditions she believed needed to be met to allow global change research on mountains to develop and flourish. With the first — “recognizing that MRI is you and I” — she highlighted the strong research legacy and social and intellectual capacity built by the MRI over the years, and stressed that this had only been possible through the engagement, connection, and collaboration of an active and dedicated research community, united in a common interest in global change research in mountains. “A big thank you to you all for this!” said Adler, stressing the role of the MRI Coordination Office as an enabler for the research network through its flagship activities such as GEO-GNOMEinvolvement in global assessments, and support for community-led activities such as working groups and synthesis workshops

“Co-production of knowledge is a social process, where enablers provide the conditions and the means for the research community to connect and thrive. The MRI is you and I!” — Carolina Adler. 

The second condition needing to be met, said Adler, is the glocalization of knowledge; relating the local with the global for the sorts of phenomena researchers are looking at in mountains. “There is a need — and pressure — to aggregate and scale knowledge from and across diverse and multiple cases. However, insights gained in any given case can be more effectively transferred or scaled to other cases, or indeed aggregated, if we can account for and retain the unique, context-specific characteristics of the case, and the conditions and mechanisms in which outcomes are derived.”

Lastly, Adler stressed the need for meaningful connection, and pointed out that although the MRI has 11,000 members listed in its Expert Database, there is skewed distribution in terms of global north and global south participation. There is, said Adler, a need to address these discrepancies through targeted activities with partners and networks in those regions, citing the MRI co-led research network and capacity building collaboration Conéctate-A+ as an example of MRI efforts to make those needed and meaningful connections. Adler closed by expressing her hope of fostering greater connections with early-career researchers, as well as continuing to make connections for our changing mountains with the research community as a whole.

Video above: During the Opening Ceremony, a screening of the short film Parasol Peak allowed the audience to accompany an ensemble of musicians on an Alpine expedition as they performed pieces of music, written by Manu Delago, inspired by the unique mountain landmarks encountered.

Conference day one: ‘We must be curious and creative.’

Welcoming the audience to the first official day of the conference, Professor Georg Kaser, Dean of the Faculty of Geo- and Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Innsbruck and Head of the IMC 2019 Steering Committee, stressed the important role of research in the face of climate and other environmental challenges.

“The scientific community is under enormous pressure, and has a duty to react responsibly [….] We must all listen to each other. We must be curious and creative.” — Professor Georg Kaser

This then set the stage for the first two keynote speeches of the week

1. Christoph Schär, ETH Zürich: Weather and Climate Modeling in the Alps: From the Early Beginnings to Climate Change

2. Christian Körner: Alpine Biota Under Environmental Change 

Workshop: Education for Sustainable Mountain Development

Among the many workshops taking place throughout the day on Monday was a session on Education for Sustainable Mountain Development, chaired by Kenichi Ueno, Associate Professor at the University of Tsukuba and MRI SLC member. The session proved to be a fruitful discussion of the crucial role education and training can play in addressing the challenges and opportunities faced by mountain regions in the face of global change. It also allowed for exchange of best practices, invited conceptual reflections on education with unique curricula for sustainable mountain development, and explored opportunities for future collaboration. A number of interesting questions were raised over the course of the workshop, including on the importance of multi-stakeholder perspectives and social learning, and ways of addressing environmental justice and equity within education for sustainable mountain development. 

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MRI SLC Member Kenichi Ueno leads the discussions during the workshop on Education for Sustainable Mountain Development. (Source: MRI)
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Participants in the workshop Education for Sustainable Mountain Development (Source: MRI)

MRI Session: IMC Synthesis Papers for IPCC AR6
It was standing room only at the MRI’s lunchtime session on IMC Synthesis Papers for the IPCC Sixth Assessment Report (AR6). The session was led by two IPCC Lead Authors: MRI Executive Director Dr. Carolina Adler and MRI Principal Investigator Professor Christian Huggel. The purpose of this informal session was to shed light on the assessment needs identified by the author team of the IPCC AR6 Cross-Chapter Paper on Mountains in order to support the production of papers valuable to the IPCC assessment process. “We need to deliver a more differentiated picture of mountains,” said Huggel.

Publications that specifically address climate change impacts, vulnerability, and adaptation within relevant themes being covered in the Cross-Chapter Paper on Mountains — ideally as review papers with a global or regional overview, or comparing at least two mountain regions — are particularly encouraged, Adler said. It should also be noted that, in addition to ensuring that AR6 has the right information and evidence available, papers that are included in the IPCC assessment process are highly cited, adding a further incentive for researchers to contribute.

“If we don’t have a strong basis due to lack of papers, key findings will be downgraded to low confidence. How far we can go in confidence is down to the efforts of the research community.” — Christian Huggel

Find out more about the assessment needs of the IPCC AR6 Cross-Chapter Paper on Mountains and how you can contribute to this important process here.

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Carolina Adler and Christian Huggel shed light on assessment needs identified by the author team of the Cross-Chapter Paper on Mountains (Photos: MRI).

Conference day two: ‘Bring people together!

Three keynotes eased participants into day two of the IMC 2019:

1. Markku Kulmala, University of Helsinki: The Significance of Continuous Comprehensive Observations – From Atmospheric Clustering Via Feedback Loops to Global Climate and Air Quality

2. Daniel Viviroli, University of Zurich: Lowland Inhabitants Depend Increasingly on Mountain Water Resources: A Global View from Mid-20th to Mid-21st Century

3. Mark Aldenderfer, University of California: The Deep Prehistory of the Human Presence in the World’s Mountains and Plateaus

MRI Workshop: Mountain Biodiversity and Ecosystems Under Global Change
In the afternoon, the MRI convened a joint double session with GMBA on Mountain Biodiversity and Ecosystems Under Global Change, with MRI Scientific Officer Dr. Aino Kulonen serving as a moderator. The 17 flash talks and ten posters presented case studies from alpine ecology highlighting the different responses species can show to long-term environmental change or experimental manipulations. The follow-up exercise and plenary discussion then returned to the critical question of how we still lack understanding of which parts of biodiversity matter for ecosystem functioning and ecosystem services in mountain environments. The moderators plan to summarize the input collected from participants during the exercise in the form of a report or publication.

MRI Workshop: Monitoring, Observing, & Informing on Mountain Environments — Status & Future Prospects

The MRI brought its activities on day two of the IMC 2019 to a close with a workshop co-convened with the GEO Global Network for Observations and Information in Mountain Environments (GEO-GNOME).

MRI Executive Director Dr. Carolina Adler began the workshop with an update on GEO-GNOME — an initiative which seeks to connect and facilitate access to diverse sources of mountain observation data — its recent activities, and its Work Plan for the next phase 2020-22, reflecting that: “GEO-GNOME is the only GEO initiative dealing exclusively with mountains. We are keen to continue to connect global Earth observations in mountain environments.”

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MRI SLC Member Professor Maria Shahgedanova presents the work of the MRI Mountain Observatories Working Group (Source: MRI)

MRI SLC Member Professor Maria Shahgedanova then gave an overview of the work the MRI Mountain Observatories Working Group is undertaking in support of GEO-GNOME. The goal of this Working Group is to facilitate the development of a network of mountain super-sites, where observations will be conducted at multi-thematic scale. These super-sites will also serve as hubs for regional monitoring. “What we aim for is the development of regional networks, with the MRI as a facilitator,” Shahgedanova said. “The observations are available, and the stations are there. What we need to do is bring people together!”

This was then followed up with a presentation from Dr. Elisa Palazzi, researcher at ISAC-CNR and GEO-GNOME co-lead, who presented climate change in mountain regions as seen through global and regional models, and outlined some of the scientific community’s needs in terms of observations. “There are many regions that are still under-sampled,” said Palazzi.

The workshop concluded with an open Q&A session, inviting feedback on some of the key challenges and opportunities for the scientific community in the development and implementation of connected mountain observation efforts worldwide.

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It was a pleasure to welcome the cohort of trainees participating in our collaborative Mentoring and Training Program in IPCC Processes for Early Career Mountain Researchers to the IMC 2019. Find out more about their time in Innsbruck and their initial impressions of the program here.

Conference day three: ‘A need for transdisciplinarity

MRI SLC Member Irasema Alcántara-Ayala kicked off day three of the IMC 2019 with a dynamic keynote speech on “Integrated Research on Disaster Risk: Challenges and Opportunities for the Future of Mountains.” “Disasters are socially constructed,” stressed Alcántara-Ayala. “The hazard is the trigger of the disaster, but the level to which people are exposed to disaster risk depends on a variety of factors, including deforestation, land degradation, inequality and poverty, and so on.”

In terms of research into disaster risk reduction, the scientific challenges and needs of societies have led to transformations from mono-disciplinary perspectives into multidisciplinary, interdisciplinary, and transdisciplinary approaches, said Alcántara-Ayala. Integrated disaster risk research has moved beyond scientific boundaries so as to not only understand the ingredients of risk and disaster causality and dynamics, but to manage disaster risk by working together with diverse stakeholders in the co-production of knowledge and practice.

Looking to the future then, she argued, integrated research on disaster risk should be carried out within an overarching framework that involves multiple responsibilities, commitments, and different spatial-temporal scales — and challenges and opportunities for the future of mountains should be directed towards enlightening decision- and policymaking and practice for societal benefit and territorial sustainability.

1. Irasema Alcántara-Ayala, National Autonomous University of Mexico: Integrated Research on Disaster Risk: Challenges and Opportunities for the Future of Mountains

2. Olivier Henry-Biabaud, TCI Research: Mapping the Growing Overtourism Sentiment in Europe: What Residents Tell Us

3. Hilde Björkhaug, Ruralis: Mountain Agriculture in the Bioeconomy

Conference Day Four: Synthesis

On the morning of day four — based on reports returned by workshop moderators and the observations of the IMC Synthesis team — a preliminary synthesis of the conference content was presented.

This synthesis team included Dr. Carolina Adler and Aino Kulonen from the MRI Coordination Office, respectively reflecting on the social and biological sciences aspects of the conference. A synthesis publication is planned. Further information will be shared on this in an upcoming communication.

The IMC 2019 officially closed with Professor Georg Kaser making the announcement that a subsequent IMC will follow in three years time, taking place 12-15 September 2022. Save the date!

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MRI’s Carolina Adler presents a synthesis from the social sciences perspective. (Source: MRI)
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The synthesis panel answers questions from the audience. (Source: MRI)

Workshop: Towards a Mountain Resilience Report: Regenerating Mountain Systems by Systemic Innovation
Following up on the same topic’s Open Think Tank at the International Mountain Conference (IMC) 2019 in Innsbruck, a post-IMC synthesis workshop deepened the discussions on the development of the first Mountain Resilience Report (MRR), that were had at a workshop that took place earlier in the week during IMC 2019. This MRI-funded workshop brought together leading scholars from academia and practice to design and develop a resilience report for mountain regions, with a geographical focus. The specific resilience angle in this synthesis workshop was on understanding and incubating innovative capacities to create and implement effective, real-world solutions for building regenerative mountain systems — and how this innovative capacity relates to and builds upon resilient landscapes and land use.

The main goal of this synthesis workshop was to recap and build upon the IMC Open Think Tank to form a core group in order to organize the development of the first MRR. During the workshop an initial outline of a joint review paper was developed, looking at the state of assessment and implementation of resilience in mountains — and their innovativeness — in line with the IPCC AR6 WGII deadlines for paper submission and paper acceptance. This paper will then form the basis for a joint research funding proposal to fully develop the first Mountain Resilience Report by 2021/2022.

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Dynamic discussions took place during the workshop Towards a Mountain Resilience Report: Regenerating Mountain Systems by Systemic Innovation. (Credit: MRI).

A full list of sessions at which representatives of the MRI were present can be found here.

Thank you to all who visited our stand and participated MRI activities at the IMC. Your comments, questions, and feedback are much appreciated.

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A Future in the Balance: Unprecedented Ocean and Cryosphere Change Requires Urgent Action, IPCC Report Finds

This article was originally published by the Mountain Research Initiative.

Our oceans are warming, ice sheets are melting, and sea levels are rising — and all at an unprecedented rate. This is according to the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate (SROCC) compiles the findings of thousands of scientific studies, painting a stark picture of the impacts, outlook, and potential for adaptation to unparalleled and enduring changes in the ocean and cryosphere as a result of global warming — and highlighting the urgency of timely, ambitious, and coordinated action on greenhouse gas emissions.

“The oceans and cryosphere have been taking the heat of climate change for decades” — Ko Barrett, IPCC Vice Chair.

Mountain Research Initiative Executive Director Dr. Carolina Adler is a Lead Author of the second chapter of SROCC, which focuses on the changes occurring in high mountain areas.

“In this report we present key evidence on observed and projected trends in warming, and how these trigger physical responses in the ocean and cryosphere,” Adler explains. “These physical responses also lead to impacts on both people and ecosystems that are evident today, and are projected to increase into the future. However, despite these significant observed and projected changes, there is still an opportunity to reduce the risk of large impacts and ensure adaptation is more effective through emissions reduction. In essence, we highlight the benefits of ambitious and effective adaptation.”

Severe impacts on ecosystems and people

The ocean and the cryosphere — the frozen parts of the planet — play a critical role for life on Earth. A total of 670 million people in high mountain regions and 680 million people in low-lying coastal zones depend directly on these systems. Four million people live permanently in the Arctic region, and small island developing states are home to 65 million people.

Global warming has already reached 1°C above the pre-industrial level, due to past and current greenhouse gas emissions. There is overwhelming evidence that this is resulting in profound consequences for ecosystems and people: the ocean is warmer, more acidic, and less productive; melting glaciers and ice sheets are causing sea level rise; and coastal extreme events are becoming more severe.

Major changes in high mountains have far-reaching consequences  

“For high mountains, the IPCC SROCC findings confirm the changes we already see in terms of melting glaciers and changes in snow cover, as well as the effects of thawing permafrost — a change that is less visible, and yet is important to note given its role in the increase of mountain hazards such as rockfalls,” said Adler.

Glaciers are retreating in all high mountain regions. Between 2006 and 2015, glacier mass losses across mountain regions averaged at approximately half a meter of thinning per year. Under high emissions scenarios, smaller glaciers such as those found in Europe, eastern Africa, the tropical Andes, and Indonesia are projected to lose more than 80 percent of their current ice mass by 2100. Some glaciers are expected to disappear completely.

The shrinking of the high-mountain cryosphere increasingly exposes the millions of people that rely on mountain glaciers and snowpack — the ‘water towers’ of the world — to both increased flooding and devastating droughts. This in turn increases food insecurity, as well as having adverse impacts on livelihoods, health and well-being, infrastructure, transportation, tourism, recreation, and cultural assets — particularly among Indigenous people. This retreat is also altering water availability and quality downstream, with implications for many sectors, such as agriculture and hydropower.

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The retreat of the mountain cryosphere is impacting water availability, both in high mountains and downstream areas.

Mountain permafrost amounts to between 27 and 29 percent of global permafrost, with the remainder focused in Arctic and boreal regions. According to Professor Konrad Steffen, IPCC Lead Author and Director of the Swiss Federal Research Institute WSL: “Due to the ever warming permafrost, the hillsides in the Alps and elsewhere are becoming unstable, and in the polar regions carbon reserves that have been resting there for thousands of years are being released.”

A quarter of permafrost globally is already likely to melt, the IPCC report has said, and 70 percent or more could be lost if emissions are not curbed. This would result in the release of significant amounts of stored carbon dioxide and methane, further exacerbating the climate emergency.

The changes being seen in high-mountain environments also have implications for the species that live there, as Andreas Fischlin, Professor at the ETH Zurich and Vice-Chair of IPCC Working Group II, points out: “Across the world, the high mountains in particular are experiencing significant change. Glaciers are melting, and plants and animals from the lower lands are populating higher elevations or changing their behavior – and, in turn, the habitats of high mountain specialists are contracting.”

There is, according to Adler, some hope however. “Through an ambitious and concerted reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, we can expect to preserve more of our iconic high mountain landscape — provided we also embed adaptation design and implementation into all aspects of development, management, and governance of our mountain spaces, with community participation at the heart of these measures.”

Melting ice, rising seas

As glaciers and ice sheets in polar and mountain regions loss mass, they are contributing to an increasing rate of sea level rise, together with the expansion of the warmer ocean.

While sea level has risen globally by around 15 cm during the 20th century, it is currently rising more than twice as fast — 3.6 mm per year — and accelerating, the report showed.

Sea level will continue to rise for centuries. It could reach around 30-60 cm by 2100 even if greenhouse gas emissions are sharply reduced and global warming is limited to well below 2°C, but around 60-110 cm if greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase strongly — potentially putting areas in which millions currently live underwater.

More frequent extreme sea level events

Sea level rise will increase the frequency of extreme sea level events, which occur during high tides and intense storms for example. Indications are that with any degree of additional warming, events that used to occur once a century will strike every year on many coasts by 2050, increasing risks for many low-lying coastal cities and small islands.

Increases in tropical cyclone winds and rainfall are also exacerbating extreme sea level events and coastal hazards. These hazards will be further intensified by an increase in the average intensity, magnitude of storm surge, and precipitation rates of tropical cyclones, especially if greenhouse gas emissions remain high.

Changing ocean ecosystems

To date, the ocean has provided a buffer against the worst effects of climate change, absorbing over 90 percent of the extra heat trapped in the atmosphere by excess greenhouse gases since the 1970s and somewhere between 20 to 30 percent of the carbon dioxide, which causes ocean acidification. By 2100, the ocean will take up 2 to 4 times more heat than between 1970 and the present if global warming is limited to 2°C, and up to 5 to 7 times more at higher emissions. Ocean warming reduces mixing between water layers and, as a consequence, the supply of oxygen and nutrients for marine life.

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Carbon dioxide being absorbed into the ocean is causing it to become more acidic, impacting organisms that build their shells and skeletons out of acid-sensitive calcium carbonate, from tiny plankton to reef-building corals.

Marine heatwaves have doubled in frequency since 1982 and are increasing in intensity. They are projected to further increase in frequency, duration, extent, and intensity. Their frequency will be 20 times higher at 2°C warming, compared to pre-industrial levels. They would occur 50 times more often if emissions continue to increase strongly.

The loss of oxygen and changes in nutrient supplies caused by ocean warming and acidification are already affecting the distribution and abundance of marine life in coastal areas, in the open ocean, and on the sea floor. This in turn impacts the food security and nutrition of communities that depend upon seafood.

The extent of Arctic sea ice is declining in every month of the year, and it is getting thinner. If global warming is stabilized at 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, the Arctic ocean would only be ice-free in September — the month with the least ice — once in every hundred years. For global warming of 2°C, this would occur up to one year in three.

Knowledge for urgent action

The report finds that strongly reducing greenhouse gas emissions, protecting and restoring ecosystems, and carefully managing the use of natural resources would make it possible to preserve the ocean and cryosphere as a source of opportunities that support adaptation to future changes, limit risks to livelihoods, and offer multiple additional societal benefits.

“We will only be able to keep global warming to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels if we effect unprecedented transitions in all aspects of society, including energy, land and ecosystems, urban and infrastructure, as well as industry. The ambitious climate policies and emissions reductions required to deliver the Paris Agreement will also protect the ocean and cryosphere — and ultimately sustain all life on Earth,” said Debra Roberts, Co -Chair of IPCC Working Group II.

More information

Download the IPCC Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate.

View the IPCC SROCC Press Release.

Additional materials including a SROCC Factsheet and Headline Statements are available to download from the IPCC website.

The IPCC SROCC highlights the importance of engaging in collaborative and interdisciplinary research in mountains, which the MRI is here to facilitate. These research efforts provide the integrated information across human and bio-physical systems that such global assessment reports need, ensuring that mountains are well-represented and that such reports thereby provide the best available science in support of important decisions for policy that affect all mountain regions and people on Earth.

Roundup: Sustainable Development, Recovering Glaciers, and Disaster Governance

Global Assesment of Sustainable Mountain Development

From Mountain Research Institute: “The MRI is collaborating with the University of Bern’s Centre for Development and Environment (CDE) to develop an approach for assessing sustainable mountain development using the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) framework. It is expected that this approach will help contextualize and highlight the specific needs and challenges faced in mountain areas, and inform policy and decision-making at all levels…The results of this project will be published as an issue brief in the fourth quarter of 2018. A session dedicated to the presentation of this issue brief will take place at the upcoming World Mountains Forum 2018, to be held in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, in October.

Read more about the event here.

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High mountain ecosystems like the Andes in Peru are extremely vulnerable to climate change (Source: David Stanley/ Creative Commons).


Holocene History of the Helheim Glacier

From Quaternary Science Reviews: “Helheim Glacier ranks among the fastest flowing and most ice discharging outlets of the Greenland Ice Sheet (GrIS)… We present the first record of direct Holocene ice-marginal changes of the Helheim Glacier following the initial deglaciation. By analyzing cores from lakes adjacent to the present ice margin, we pinpoint periods of advance and retreat… Helheim Glacier’s present extent is the largest since the last deglaciation, and its Holocene history shows that it is capable of recovering after several millennia of warming and retreat.”

Read more about the research here.

Coring platform and sediment core retrieved from the Niflheim Plateau. A) The inflatable coring platform in use on Lake 297. B) A sediment core (HG309b) retrieved from Lake 309 (Source: Bjork et al.)


Impact on Disaster Governance in Ladakh, India

From International Journal of Disaster Risk Reduction: “The Indian border region of Ladakh, in Jammu and Kashmir State, has a sensitive Himalayan ecosystem and has experienced natural hazards and disasters of varying scales over the decades. Ladakh is also situated on a fault-line of multiple tensions, including ongoing border disagreements and intermittent conflict with China and Pakistan. This paper examines the implications of the intersection of these environmental and security factors for disaster governance in the region. This case study provides important insight into why disaster risk reduction has been slow or absent in conflict zones.”

Read more about the research here.

Taglang La mountain pass in Ladakh (Source: Creative Commons).