My friends and I have been making plans for a group vacation later this year, and we all seem to love the mountains. There's something exhilarating about being so high up near the peaks and breathing the clear, if thin, air. However, as each of us pointed to a favorite mountain range around the globe, I couldn't help but think of the hazards these mountains and the communities that rely on them will experience in coming decades because of climate change.
In many mountain regions, global warming is linked to reduced snow cover, the melting of glaciers, and the degradation of permafrost. High mountain areas are also prone to erosion, since there is lower vegetative cover. As warming increases, there will be less snow and ice holding geologic materials in place, likely leading to more slope failures (PDF). The rock and debris from slope failures can pose a significant threat to human settlements and movement in the mountains. In fact, a team of international scientists just published their findings (PDF) about the critical role of climate change in several recent mountain landslide events around the world.
Also, prolonged periods of higher temperatures may transform areas that are already sensitive to fire – such as coastal areas of California or the Blue Mountains of Australia – into regions of sustained fire hazard. And, of course, one of the biggest impacts in the mountains may be increased desertification in areas that are already dry, like Tibet or Mongolia, and the drying up of essential glacier-fed water supplies in places like the Andes.
Mountains cover about 27% of the world's surface. Approximately 12% of the world's population lives in the mountains, but nearly 50% of the world's people are directly or indirectly dependent on mountain resources. Mountain hazards are likely to impact more and more people as climate change takes its toll on the sensitive and fragile geology of these areas. In the past few weeks, some of our friends and colleagues from around the world ventured into mountain regions to see the impacts of climate change firsthand.
How about you or your family? Have you already started seeing greater hazards in mountain areas you visit or live in? Let us know what you've seen or heard, and why we should be more vigilant in the mountains in a warmer world.
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