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Fragile Mountain Systems? On the Evolution of Scientific Insights

In this blog post written for the Network for European Mountain Research (NEMOR), Harald Bugmann, Professor of Forest Ecology at ETH Zurich and our very first Chair here at the MRI, reflects on the fragility of mountain forests and their vulnerability to the impacts of climate change.

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Opinion: If we want to increase trust in science, we need to direct more research dollars to rural America

Illustration by Sean Quinn

Pandemic relief funding should provide a much-needed boost to scientific research. And we should steer those dollars toward where they can do the most good.

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Tackling “the Ultimate Challenge” in Greater Depth

I am delighted to join the MRI as a Scientific Project Officer and, as part of the GEO-GNOME project, look forward to working in an interdisciplinary and collaborative fashion to improve the availability and accessibility of data pertaining to the earth’s mountainous regions. Below, by way of self-introduction, I take the opportunity to say a few words regarding my recent doctoral research.  

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Ambassador of Interdisciplinary Mountain Research | Interview with Connie Millar

Connie Millar in the East Humboldt Range, Nevada

During the 2019 Annual Meeting of the American Geophysical Union (AGU) in San Francisco, California, Dr. Constance Millar, USDA Forest Service Pacific, Southwest Research Station, Albany, California, was honoured with an AGU Ambassador Award. The award was given for her outstanding contributions and inspiring interdisciplinary research and leadership on how mountain flora and fauna adapt to climate change, and for building a diverse scientific community to guide management of these natural resources. 

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Acodado Glacier, Chile Retreat Yields Tripling in Lake Area 1987 - 2020

Loriaux and Casassa (2013) examined the expansion of lakes of the Northern Patagonia Ice Cap (NPI). From 1945 to 2011 lake area expanded 65%, 66 km2. Rio Acodado has two large glacier termini at its headwater, HPN2 and HPN3. that are fed by the same accumulation zone and comprise the Acodado Glacier. The glacier separates from Steffen Glacier at 900 m. The lakes at the terminus of each were first observed in 1976 and had an area of 2.4 and 5.0 km2 in 2011 (Loriaux and Casassa, 2013).  Willis et al (2012) noted a 3.5 m thinning per year from 2001-2011 in the ablation zone of the Acodado Glacier, they also note annual velocity is less than 300 m/year in the ablation zone. Davies and Glasser (2012) noted that the Acodado Glacier termini, HPN2 and HPN3, had retreated at a steadily increasing rate from 1870 to 2011. Here we examine the substantial changes in Acodado Glacier from 1987...
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Here’s How Some of Earth’s Most Breathtaking Landscapes Are Created by Glaciers

Photo by Shutterstock/Guitar photographer 

Glaciers have carved some of Earth’s most beautiful landscapes by steepening and deepening valleys through erosion. Think of the Scottish Highlands, Yosemite National Park in the US, or the Norwegian Fjords. But big questions remain about how glacial erosion works.

A problem for scientists seeking to understand how glaciers affect the landscape is that the processes of glacial erosion are very complex and not fully understood. For the most part that’s because these processes occur under tens, hundreds or even thousands of metres of ice – we simply can’t observe them.

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Taking Back the Hills: A Tale of Women Rights and Lands in the Catalan Pyrenees

I met Meritxell and Laia one bright sunny day in April, in the Pallars Sobirà, a mountainous county in the Catalan Pyrenees. Both are women farmers and work in livestock management – Meritxell is a cattle rancher, while Laia herds goats and makes cheese.  Unlike most women in the region, both have made a conscious choice to live and work in the Pallars’ hills, despite the harsh conditions. Even as spring unfolds, from their houses they can watch the flakes of snow still covering the mountain pastures. Soon the foothills are slowly revealed, uncovering green meadows and flowers, with bees popping out from the white winter coating. Catalunya Pallars Sobirà. Wikimedia, CC BY-NDI met Meritxell and Laia through the AGATA research project on the social and agricultural dynamics in the Pallars Sobirà region. I am trying with my colleagues to understand the threats to agricultural and pastoral systems in mountainous areas, including environmental and...
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University of Lausanne launches centre to promote interdisciplinary research on mountains

The Interdisciplinary Centre for Mountain Research (ICMR) was launched by the University of Lausanne (UNIL) as a four-year pilot project to contribute to the sustainable development of mountain regions. It does so by enhancing the synergies between 70 researchers from five UNIL faculties and nine research and dissemination institutions mostly from the Alpine region. Among these associated entities is the Mountain Research Initiative, supporting international outreach and connection. Inaugurated on 2 November 2018, the ICMR aims at deepening our knowledge about the challenges faced by mountain regions by using a wide range of methods from the social sciences, natural sciences, and humanities. Research will concentrate on a set of themes identified through discussions with UNIL experts on mountains during the centre’s design phase: time and sustainability, change and transitions, natural hazards and risks, mountain society, natural resources, ecosystem services, innovation, food labels, and tourism and health. But the integration of diverse...
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20th Swiss Global Change Day

The annual Swiss Global Change Day, organized by ProClim, brings together Swiss and international scientists and practitioners to present and discuss highlights of climate and global change research from different fields. This year’s programme was full of familiar faces from the MRI, with MRI Chair Rolf Weingartner chairing the first session and MRI Co-PI Adrienne Grêt-Regamey giving a keynote speech.   The Swiss Global Change Day is known for its excellent set of keynote speakers, and this year’s 20th anniversary programme was no exception. The first on the stage was Dirk Messner from the United Nations University. Messner’s talk, ‘On the (im)possibility of the transformation to sustainability,’ was a remarkably positive and encouraging start to the day, highlighting the long way we’ve come from Rio 1992 to COP24 and the amount of knowledge and technical solutions available today. Messner pointed that this is the moment for joint action to face the challenges...
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Opportunities in Mountain Environments Explored at Mountains 2018

The city of Nova Friburgo, in the mountainous region of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, hosted Mountains 2018, 10-14 December, with debates on topics ranging from agricultural production to ecological tourism and climate change, culminating in the creation of the Latin American and Caribbean Network for Research in Mountain Environments. “Like Lumont Lusofonia Mountain Research Network, the goal is to strengthen research in the area and set goals to improve people's lives, with sustainability,” says Embrapa researcher Adriana Aquino, chair of the Mountains 2018 organizing commission. According to her, the network will be an instrument to encourage the creation of government programs and promote joint research between institutions throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. Discussions taking place at Mountains 2018. Image credit: Fernando Gregio. A highlight of Mountains 2018 was the presentation of the Letter of Nova Friburgo, a participant-led initiative to alert society and government of the importance of actions and...
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Ice Volume Calculated Anew

Written by Peter Rüegg. Source: ETH Zürich. Researchers have provided a new estimate for the glacier ice volume all around the world, excluding the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets. Their conclusion: previous calculations overestimated the volume of the glaciers in High Mountain Asia. Climate change is causing glaciers to shrink around the world. Reduced meltwaters from these glaciers also have downstream effects, particularly on freshwater availability. A lack of meltwater can greatly restrict the water supply to many rivers, especially in arid regions such as the Andes or central Asia, that depend on this water source for agriculture. Up-to-date information on the worldwide ice volume is needed to assess how glaciers – and the freshwater reserves they supply – will develop, and how sea levels are set to change.Ice thickness calculated for 215,000 glaciersLed by ETH Zurich and the Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research WSL, an international team...
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Thriving in a changing climate for mountains: Research prospects inspired by outcomes of the Sustainable Summits Conference 2018

As we near the winter solstice in the northern hemisphere, and the mountains are blanketed with snow and temperatures drop, the extreme summer conditions experienced in the Alps earlier in the year seem like a very distant memory. Last summer, Switzerland registered its third warmest summer immediately after the fourth warmest spring season since instrumental records began in the year 1864, according to a report by Meteoswiss. The impacts observed and felt in the region were considerable, including rapidly changing conditions in the mountains triggering hazardous conditions and risks to mountain visitors and dwellers. So, rather than letting it slip into a distant memory, this is precisely the time to maintain the momentum and continue to reflect on those events and resulting losses, and steer attention to prospects for research and knowledge that address the new living conditions across all seasons in a rapidly changing climate in mountains – focusing on...
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Vulnerable Peaks and People

More than half of the world’s population depends on mountains to provide drinking water. This water comes from glaciers in the Himalayas, Andes and other mountain ranges which a recent report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) identified as among parts of the world most vulnerable to climate change. Each year, the United Nations marks the 11th of December as International Mountain Day, honouring the rich and diverse ecosystems and people that inhabit these magnificent landscapes, and highlighting the challenges they face. This year GRID-Arendal, UN Environment and a number of partners, observed the day with the launch of two special reports at the climate change negotiations underway in Katowice, Poland – the Outlook on Climate Change Adaptation in the Hindu Kush Himalaya and the Mountain Adaptation Outlook Series Synthesis Report.  Nepalese woman washes at a communal water tap. Photo: UN Women/Narendra Shrestha. These reports wrap up a seven-volume series of assessments that looked at...
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Mountain Glaciers: Vanishing Sources of Water & Life

[gallery size="large" link="file" columns="5" ids="3796,3802,3797,3798,3799,3800,3801,3803,3804,3805"][caption id="attachment_3815" align="alignright" width="305"] Click to download the flyer.Mountain glaciers are among the most visible and emblematic indicators of climate change. Worldwide, glaciers are losing mass at unprecedented rates – a process that has accelerated in recent decades, with record losses in the 21st century. As an effect of widespread glacier shrinkage, the high mountains of the world are currently experiencing a historically unparalleled, large-scale environmental transformation, with profound and far-reaching impacts for landscapes, ecosystems, and people.Glaciers provide important ecosystem services. In the tropical Andes, for instance, glacier meltwater offers critical support to sensitive ecosystems such as high-mountain wetlands. Ongoing glacier retreat therefore gives rise to ecosystem changes, and the eventual disappearance of glaciers in future will ultimately disrupt these ecosystems and their service functions. Glacier retreat also impacts water provision for people and economies downstream. Central Asia, several regions in South Asia, and the tropical Andes...
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New Study Highlights Loss & Damage in Mountain Cryosphere

Written by Andrew Angle. This article was first published on GlacierHub.Few areas of the planet have been more affected by climate change than the mountain cryosphere, where negative impacts like glacier recession far exceed any positives like short-term increases in glacial runoff. These adverse changes make highland environments ideal for examining the policy concept of Loss and Damage (L&D), which deals with the impact of climate change on resources and livelihoods that cannot be offset by adaptation. A recent study in Regional Environmental Change analyzes L&D in the mountain cryosphere by extracting examples from existing literature on the subject and developing a conceptual approach to support future research to address the subject.L&D has become an important issue within the international climate policy realm in recent years. In the mountain cryosphere, the effects of climate change and the resultant L&D are directly evident. However, despite the visibility of these changes, research on L&D has rarely...
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Observing Glaciers in 'Real Time'

Written by Markus Gross. Source: ETH ZurichHot summers cause glaciers to melt. That not only changes the makeup of the landscape and hence the maps of Switzerland, it also affects every area of society. A new, dynamic glacier inventory makes the impact of climate change and the changing landscape visible.[caption id="attachment_3695" align="alignright" width="300"] Glacier observation under the spell of several Valais four-thousand-metre peaks. (Image copyright: GLAMOS / ETHZ)The last time Swiss glaciers managed to grow at all was in 2001. Since then, the country’s 1,500 glaciers – as well as others elsewhere – have been suffering a slow but inexorable death. Until now, though, we have understood only partially how quickly they are really disappearing, and what effect that has on the landscape, people and animals. That is about to change, thanks to the Glacier Monitoring in Switzerland (GLAMOS) project. GLAMOS is working on behalf of various Swiss federal offices to...
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Why we explored an undisturbed rainforest hidden on top of an African mountain

Written by Simon Willcock, Lecturer in Environmental Geography at Bangor University and Phil Platts, Research Fellow, University of York. Atop Mount Lico in northern Mozambique is a site that few have had the pleasure of seeing – a hidden rainforest, protected by a steep circle of rock. Though the mountain was known to locals, the forest itself remained a secret until six years ago, when Julian Bayliss spotted it on satellite imagery. It wasn’t until last year, however, that he revealed his discovery, at the Oxford Nature Festival. We recently visited the 700 metre-high mountaintop rainforest in an expedition organised by Bayliss, in collaboration with Mozambique’s Natural History Museum and National Herbarium. As far as anyone knew (including the locals), we would be the first people to set foot there (spoiler: we weren’t). Since the rainforest’s discovery, Lico has received worldwide attention. That it captured the public’s imagination speaks volumes about how...
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HICAP: Adaptation to climate change in the Himalayas

[caption id="attachment_3558" align="alignright" width="300"] HICAP – a transboundary, inter-disciplinary and multi-scale programmeAn infographic journey of the long road from science to policy impact - by Björn Alfthan (GRID-Arendal[1]), Nand Kishor Agrawal (ICIMOD[2]), Bob Van Oort[3] & Nina Bergan Holmelin (CICERO).The Himalayan Climate Change Adaptation Programme (HICAP) was born out of a need to address critical knowledge gaps on the impacts of climate change in the Himalayas and to better understand under what conditions mountain communities can best adapt to change. Its main aims, elaborated in 2011, were to: Reduce uncertainty through downscaling and customizing global climate change scenarios, and developing water availability and demand scenarios for parts of major river basins Develop knowledge and enhance capacities to assess, monitor, and communicate the impacts of and responses to climate change on natural and socio-economic environments at the local, national and regional levels Make concrete and actionable proposals for strategies and policies considering vulnerabilities,...
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Addressing Climate Change, Poverty, and Flooding in Malawi

Climate change and its associated impacts continue to ravage Malawi, exacerbating poverty and raising doubts over the ability of the country to attain the recently adopted Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). According to the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women, the country is losing 1.7 percent of its gross domestic product – about USD 22 million (MK 16 billion) – on average every year due to the combined effects of drought and floods.Between 1967 and 2003, the country experienced six major droughts and 18 incidences of flooding, which heavily impacted smallholder farmers. Droughts in 2011-2012 had severe effects on food security in many districts, with approximately 2 million people affected – particularly in the south. The country has also only just recovered from extensive flooding that took place in 2015 and left many lives and livelihoods destroyed; it is estimated that 1,101,364 people were affected, with 230,000...
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Changing the Mountain Picture

[caption id="attachment_3179" align="alignright" width="300"] 'Baron Alexander von Humboldt,' by Julius Schrader. Humboldt chose the Ecuadorian mountains Chimborazo & Cotopaxi for the portrait's background. How do mountain roads and non-native species affect mountain biodiversity? Next year, we will celebrate 250 years since the birth of the German geographer, naturalist, and explorer Alexander von Humboldt. Few people had such a strong influence on modern science – and on ecology in particular. One of Humboldt's strongest interests was investigating how species richness and community composition change along elevational gradients. He was obsessed with the idea of climbing all the mountains he came across during his travels, and many of us probably have his famous drawings in mind, in which he noted down all species names and vegetation zones he found from the bottom to the top of each one. However, although the idea of investigating how the number of species varies with elevation is...
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Lagging Behind

Species have been reported to be moving poleward and upward in mountains as a result of climate change. Evidence of this movement is piling up rapidly, and with every passing year the increasing speed at which it is occurring is also becoming apparent. However, new studies reveal that this species movement is often not as straightforward as it first appears.[caption id="attachment_3155" align="alignright" width="300"] Plants and other sessile organism often show a delayed response to climate change. (Northern Scandes, Norway)One might think that as the climate warms, so species will follow. The problem is, a species’ reaction to a change in their environment is not always that fast. They often need some time to adjust and to move towards where the climate is now suitable. This delayed reaction is especially true for sessile species, like plants, that depend almost entirely on seed transportation to travel around.Toward greater understandingThese so-called lags in species...
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AFRI-SKY-FOR: Saving African tropical montane forests

 Tropical montane forests are biodiversity rich and unique ecosystems. The montane forests of the Albertine Rift region in Africa, for example, contain around 7500 plant and animal species – over a thousand of which are endemic. Tropical montane forests provide numerous ecosystems services including water, food, timber, and non-timber forest products (firewood, medicinal plants, building materials), they support agricultural systems that underpin regional and lowland food security, and make a significant contribution towards income generation through tourism (such as hiking and the viewing of mountain gorillas). They also play an important role in hazard prevention, climate modulation and carbon sequestration.[caption id="attachment_2913" align="alignleft" width="300"] Mt Kahuzi (3317m) and surrounding mixed-species and bamboo forest, eastern Democratic Republic of CongoForests under threatUnfortunately, tropical montane forests are amongst the most threatened ecosystems on Earth due to the combined effects of climate change, population growth, and land use change. They remain overexploited (logging, poaching, mining, conversion...
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Mountain forests don’t need humans – but we need them

Forests in the mountain regions of our planet are fragile ecosystems, suffering from the impact of climate change. However, to survive in the long-term, these ecosystems do not need human intervention. It is rather the humans in the mountain regions who depend on healthy forests and the protection they provide. Should we, for example, plant genetically-modified tree species that are particularly resistant to drought, to ensure that mountain forests thrive in the future? This is no joke, but one of the many ideas on how mountain forests should be managed in future, hotly debated at the latest ETH Sustainability Summer School (see box). Thirty-two students from 17 countries and 14 disciplines took an in-depth look at suggestions such as these, which may seem absurd at first glance. Wooden tripods protect saplings from snow in the Tamina valley (Image: ETH Sustainability / ETH Zurich)All that mountain forests provide  Mountain forests are more...
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Listening to the Voice of Nature as it Echoes from an Adaptation Retreat

By Felix Donkor and Christopher Mabeza[caption id="attachment_2619" align="alignright" width="300"] Co-op farmers demonstrate the process of rooibos farming to visitors.Anthropogenic climate change has been given different accolades from being a “wicked problem” (Rittel and Webber, 1973) to a “super wicked problem” (Levin, 2012). A common denominator in both descriptions is that climate change, due to its hyper-complexity, defies simplistic or straightforward planning responses. Consequently, as we grapple with complexity in the Anthropocene, response interventions merit an interdisciplinary or trans-disciplinary approach.The South African Adaptation Network responded to a call for an advanced platform where discussions could be deepened and stimulated and climate change adaptation initiatives and experiences could be shared among practitioners in the adaptation landscape. The platform was facilitated in the form of a Adaptation Retreat, held in the town of Nieuwoudtville in the Northern Cape from 15 -18 May 2017. Facilitated by Noel Oettle (Adaptation Network), Shannon Parring (Indigo development &...
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Species on the move

[caption id="attachment_2601" align="alignright" width="300"] Recent climate change is affecting a fragile balance, and the ball just started rollingThe world’s climate is changing rapidly. There, I said it! A statement backed by scientific evidence that keeps piling up, day by day. Yet, what is perhaps even more important: the impact of this changing climate on our world are now undeniably starting to surface as well. From the damaging effect of extreme weather events, over the slow-yet-steady rise of sea levels to the changes in the distribution of countless species; climate change is happening under our very eyes.Concerning the latter, an impressive recent review in Science (Pecl et al., 2017) has bundled all these observed biodiversity redistributions, highlighting why we should care about them. And that last fact might be even more interesting, because at first sight, it might be not more than a scientific triviality if organisms are heading north or up in the mountains.[caption id="attachment_2603"...
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'Mountains 2016' dedicated to Mountains’ vulnerability to climate change

It has been more than two months since Mountains 2016 took place in Bragança, Portugal. The outcomes and impacts of the conference were many and all of them significant. Mountains 2016 included the X European Mountain Convention (X EMC), dedicated to “Mountains’ vulnerability to climate change”, and the 1st International Conference on Research for Sustainable Development in Mountain Regions (1st ICRSDMR), dedicated to “Ecosystem services and sustainable development”.  X European Mountain Convention The X EMC (3 to 5 October 2016) brought to Bragança around 260 mountain actors (researchers, farmers, environmentalists, elected representatives from local and regional authorities, representatives of chambers of commerce and development agencies) to debate climate change adaptation in mountain areas. The X EMC presented a state-of-the-art of climate change in mountain areas in Europe from scientific, institutional and financial perspectives and, most importantly, promoted a broad debate on how people and particular mountain sectors can deal with climate...
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