IPCC Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C – A Mountain Research Perspective
IPCC Special Report 1.5 degrees coverIn a new Special Report released in October, the IPCC stressed the urgency of limiting global warming to 1.5°C to mitigate some of the more severe consequences of climate change. What are the implications of this report for mountains and mountain research?

Published earlier this month, the IPCC Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C provided compelling evidence of climate change impacts that could be avoided by limiting global warming to 1.5°C, compared to 2°C or more. Global sea level rise by 2100, for instance, would be 10 cm lower with 1.5°C rather than 2°C of warming, while the likelihood of an Arctic Ocean free of sea ice in summer would be once per century, rather than at least once per decade.

“Every extra bit of warming matters, especially since warming of 1.5°C or higher increases the risks associated with long-lasting or irreversible changes, such as the loss of some ecosystems,” says Hans-Otto Pörtner, Co-Chair of IPCC Working Group II.

The report’s underlying message is an undeniable plea for urgent action, which is particularly relevant in the context of mountains and the cryosphere – often referred to as the ‘canary in the mine’ for the observation and detection of climate change today, given that a 1.5oC increase in global averages already signifies significant changes and impacts for mountains at regional and local scales.

According to a recent blog post featured on GlacierHub, the word ‘glacier’ appears quite prominently in the report, offering some signs that research and assessment efforts on climate change do take some mountain cryosphere components into account. However, what about climate change for mountain social-ecological systems more generally? What would a broader and more comprehensive look at mountains, their communities, and their ecosystems mean in the context of this IPCC Special Report, and how might this relate to research needs that still need to be reflected and addressed by us as a community? We asked a few prominent researchers in the field of climate change and mountains to give us their thoughts.

Tenzin Chamkar miriamThe significance of small differences
For Dr. Miriam Jackson of the Norwegian Water Resources & Energy Directorate, a Lead Author of the ‘High Mountains’ chapter in the upcoming IPCC Special Report on Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate (SROCC), the report’s underlying message presents both a challenge and an opportunity. "The latest report from the IPCC is almost overwhelming, especially for those of us who study the mountain cryosphere. We are now committed to an increase in temperature over the next few decades, and it feels like there is little we can do about it. However, this newest report shows how significant small differences in the temperature increase can be.”

Jackson also comments on the state of glacier retreat where she is based. “In Norway we have seen significant glacier retreat over the past 20 years. In the latter part of the 20th Century, most of the glaciers closer to the coast had an advance due to several years with increased snowfall, but since 2000 the pattern of glacier retreat has been uniform. The incidence of Glacier Outburst Floods has also increased. However, in Norway the extra water often flows into a hydropower dam, so is financially beneficial and means that there is mitigation of damage to property and people. Flood and avalanche warning here at the Norwegian Water Resources and Energy Directorate is also facing up to a different climate situation ahead, and that experience may no longer be key in what will happen in the next few years.

Dr Elisa Palazzi 200x200Sentinels of global change
Dr. Elisa Palazzi of the National Research Council of Italy, a SROCC contributing author, explains how important mountain environments are in the monitoring and assessment of trends for warming.

As sentinels of global and climate changes, mountains have already experienced larger and faster warming with respect to their lower elevation counterparts. Limiting the globally-averaged temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels would allow limiting extra warming in mountains too, and thus avoiding that the negative effects already in place in mountain regions –  such as loss of biodiversity, damages to high-altitude ecosystems and their services, and changes in water storage and supply – are amplified.”

Making mountains visible
Dr. Nick Pepin from the University of Portsmouth in the UK, a SROCC contributing author, notes the following: “What is interesting is that the number of times that mountains are specifically mentioned in the report is very low. This is not because specific ecosystems are excluded – there are whole sections on ocean systems (14 pages), coastal and low-lying areas (7 pages), and small islands (6 pages), for example. It is therefore quite difficult to see what the report means for mountain systems without reading between the lines from various disparate sections”.

Nick Pepin PortraitGiven that we are already observing amplified warming and its impacts at high elevations in mountains, what can we as a mountain research community do to enhance attention to mountain regions on a global scale? Pepin suggests that we need to be aware of some of the possible challenges for mountains at global scales of assessments.

“The disparate nature and location of different mountain ranges with different physical climates and socio-economic systems makes them difficult to generalise in a report such as this. The intense local and micro-scale complexity, which is largely lacking from other environments, makes it difficult to extract signal from noise. And the linkage with other ecosystems downstream means that some of the mountain effects of climate warming, such as changes in runoff, may actually be experienced in adjacent lowlands. These three factors make mountains and their changes challenging to generalise, and may explain the relatively poor representation in this latest global report.

It is worth noting that the challenge of aggregating and generalising findings across mountain regions also applies to the difficult and currently fragmented task of investigating and representing the human dimension of climate-related impacts, and responses to these impacts, in cultural, socio-economic, and political realms. Critical comparative methodologies and heuristic frameworks are needed to identify, interrelate, and compare conditions and mechanisms for climate-related impacts and responses through adaptation, within and between mountain regions. Addressing this challenge as a ‘mountain-specific’ issue in global assessments not only implies improving our observation capacities, data, and information base, but also invites a look at ‘fit-for-purpose’ methodologies to improve analyses and generate relevant insights. This also warrants efforts to support the social sciences and humanities in addressing these gaps, together with the natural sciences.

Global assessments – get involved!
There are currently many ways in which the MRI community can get involved and support participation in research and review efforts relevant in the global assessment context. For instance, the second order draft of SROCC has just been submitted to the IPCC technical support units, which has issued a call for expert and government review between 16 November 2018 and 11 January 2019. This will be the last chance for the expert community of scientists, researchers, and practitioners to participate in the SROCC review, with the last and final review process reserved for governments in mid-2019.

Register as an expert reviewer, and be a part of the effort to enhance the visibility of mountains in a changing climate, by visiting the IPCC website.

READ MORE: IPCC Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C and IPCC Special Report press release.

This article was written by Dr. Carolina Adler, Executive Director MRI


glacier IPCC info event small

IPCC SROCC Information Event for Early-Career Researchers, 18 December 2018, 9am to 1:15pm, University of Bern, Switzerland
A chance to join the discussion, network, and learn from prominent climate scientists and experts participating in the IPCC assessment process on topics related to the IPCC Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate (SROCC). This event will provide background information on the assessment process, and perspectives from the scientific communities working on mountains, polar regions, and past climates on the challenges and prospects for research on climate change in these environments.

arid 1850193 1920EGU General Assembly 2019 Session: Mountain climates: processes, change and related impacts, 7-12 April 2019, Austria Center Vienna, Austria. 
This session is devoted to a better understanding of climate processes and their modification induced by global environmental change in mountain and high elevation areas around the globe (including polar regions). A planned outcome objective for this session is a synthesis contribution based on the presentations at the session as input for the IPCC Sixth Assessment Report, more specifically its cross-chapter paper on 'Mountains', which is flagged for the Working Group II report.