New research undertaken by the MRI Mountain Observatories Working Group identifies both gaps and recent advances in the monitoring of key biophysical and socioeconomic variables in the mountains, and proposes ways to improve and connect existing initiatives – with the ultimate aim of developing a global mountain observatories network. Lead author Maria Shahgedanova explains why making these connections for our changing mountains is so crucial.

Mountains matter. Covering up to 30 percent of the planet’s land surface, mountains are home to between 0.9 and 1.2 billion people, host approximately a quarter of the planet’s biodiversity, and the enormous range of ecosystem services they provide are vital to human well-being. Over half of humanity’s freshwater, for example, originates in the world’s mountains. Unfortunately, mountains are also particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate and other global changes – with significant implications for ecosystems, biodiversity, and human health, safety, and security. In order to meet future challenges and identify appropriate sustainable development pathways, we need to understand the complex biological, social, and physical processes in mountain social-ecological systems.

Recognizing this need, the MRI Mountain Observatories Working Group was established by the MRI Science Leadership Council to build on the foundations laid by the Global Network of Mountain Observatories (GNOMO), which was formed in 2015 to create a network that would generate comparable data on mountain social-ecological systems.

Diverse data needs

“My MRI colleagues and I saw how important the GNOMO initiative was because, working in the mountains, we need – but often can’t find – good quality, spatially distributed data from multiple disciplines,” says Mountain Observatories Working Group lead Maria Shahgedanova, a professor at the University of Reading. “For example, for my current work on forecast of debris flow, I need hazard statistics, meteorological data, and information about land cover. This largely comes from remote sensing, in situ meteorological, hydrological, and soil moisture observations, and data from numerical weather forecasts. In addition, to assess the impact of these events and the exposure and vulnerability of local populations, I also need social science data – not only from the mountain regions but also from populations downstream. This is just one example demonstrating the need for multi- and interdisciplinary data obtained through different methods in order to find a solution for a problem typical in mountain regions.”

The Mountain Observatories Working Group, in close collaboration with GEO Mountains, therefore aims to facilitate the development of a global reference network of long-term environmental and socioeconomic monitoring sites – mountain observatories. In support of this goal, new research undertaken by the Mountain Observatories Working Group identifies geographical and thematic gaps, as well as recent advances, in the monitoring of relevant biophysical and socioeconomic variables in the mountains. The research, published this month in the journal Mountain Research and Development (MRD), also proposes ways of connecting existing initiatives, supporting emerging areas, and developing new mountain observatory networks regionally and, ultimately, globally.

Maria Shahgedanova

Pictured: Maria Shahgedanova in discussion with other members of the MRI Mountain Observatories Working Group. Image credit: Grace Goss-Durant / MRI

Making connections, bridging gaps

Among the gaps the research identifies are two opposing trends: a reduction in high-elevation in situ observations and an increase in the coverage and sophistication of remote sensing. As the researchers outline in the MRD journal article, this expansion of automated measurements partly alleviates the lack of in situ observations. However, the datasets they generate are often short-lived and inconsistent in time and methods, and there is no existing database to compile, at the very least, metadata for these measurements. The researchers also found that there is no mountain-specific paleo database, although many paleo datasets are obtained from the mountains, and that spatial resolution remains a problem: regional and global datasets are designed to capture large-scale spatial variability and do not resolve the smaller-scale processes and sharp gradients characterizing mountain environments.

Another major limitation is a lack of integration of biophysical and socioeconomic data and transdisciplinary research collaborations. The researchers identified a number of emerging successful multithematic observatories and networks, acting at different spatial scales and in different financial frameworks. However, they found that most observations retain thematic foci, and integrated, holistic observations are still a rarity in the mountainous regions. This fragmentation, the researchers stress, hampers the ability to characterize and quantify observed and projected climate and environmental change, their impacts on high-elevation regions, and their consequences for downstream locations relying on ecosystem services to facilitate sustainable development.

“You can’t conduct productive research that generates useful practical results in isolation,” explains Shahgedanova. “Taking a limited range of measurements on your favorite but isolated summit using a single trusted instrument will not work in the modern world. We need to develop a network that generates multidisciplinary data using the key complimentary techniques: in situ measurements, remote sensing, and modelling. We need to put these data into a longer historical context by using palaeo reconstructions. We need to remember that science is for people. This means that socio-economic and human sciences data are also equally important, and it is this type of data that are often missing. It also means that we need to share our data freely.”

From regional to global

In view of this, the Mountain Observatories Working Group aspires to build a community of researchers and practitioners – particularly in data-poor regions. “To develop a global network of mountain observatories, we decided first to focus on developing regional networks,” says Shahgedanova. “It is an easier way forward because of the shared needs and interests, and because links between researchers and practitioners already exist. We identified several key regions – Central Asia, Caucasus, East Africa, Hindu Kush Himalaya, and tropical-subtropical Andes – where the needs for developing mountain observatories are the greatest, and we will be conducting regional meetings to facilitate this work.”

Shahgedanova concludes by issuing an invitation to the wider research community: “If you are running a site or have well-established, long-term observations using remote sensing in a mountainous region, why not start thinking about developing it into an observatory? Our paper defines a remit of mountain observatories, and another recent paper by Thornton et al also proposes a set of potential Essential Mountain Climate Variables to support the monitoring and understanding of key climate change-related mountain processes. You can use these ideas to develop your work, publish papers, and justify new research proposals. Remember the key principles: multidisciplinary, long-term and standardized monitoring, and – importantly – sharing data.”

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 Cover image: Weissfluhjoch observatory in Graubünden, Switzerland captured by Stefan Kern.

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