Mountains provide early warning of climate change

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Encompassing majestic snowcapped peaks of the Hindu Kush-Himalayas, the Sagarmatha National Park World Heritage Site is dominated by Mount Everest (8,848 m).
Panorama of Mount Everest Region and Ngozumpa Glacier from Goky Ri, Nepal
CC Hendrik Terbeck

Mountainous regions are the birthplace of the globe’s largest rivers. Their reputation as global water towers is well deserved, as 40% of the world’s population rely indirectly on mountain resources for drinking water, irrigation, and hydroelectricity. Their ecosystems are among the most sensitive to climate change and are being affected at a faster rate than other terrestrial habitats, which could have severe consequences for water provision and livelihoods in downstream regions. Designing specific adaptation strategies and policies for the globe’s mountainous regions is therefore vital to a sustainable future. UNESCO is presenting a new Policy Brief to that effect during the United Nations Conference on Climate Change (COP20), as well as an exhibition which uses satellite images to show the impacts of climate change on various mountain regions of the world.

Mountains are home to 1.2 billion people, and provide a multitude of ecosystem goods and services not just to mountain peoples but to those living downstream. Water is the most critical ecosystem service that mountains provide. Because rates of precipitation are higher in mountains and they store both ice and snow, mountain areas are the sources of the world’s major rivers and are also origins of groundwater. The ten largest rivers originating in the Hindu Kush Himalayas alone supply water to over 1.35 billion people.

They are also unique centres of biodiversity, and provide food, timber, and genetic resources of great pharmaceutical and agricultural importance. They have great cultural value, and are centres of recreation and tourism.

Healthy functioning mountain ecosystems regulate climate, air quality, and water flow, while contributing to protection against natural hazards such as floods, droughts, and major storms. These services are especially critical to downstream areas, where the effects of such events are often most intensively experienced, sometimes several hundreds of kilometres away.

Climate impacts constitute a significant threat to these services and the populations depending on them. Despite their great ecological and socio-economic value, there has been relatively little research with an explicit focus on mountain ecosystem services. Strengthening research and assessing vulnerability is among the first recommendations of the new policy brief, entitled Our global water towers: ensuring ecosystem services from mountains under climate change, which was launched officially on 2 December 2014 in Lima.   

”Sagarmatha National Park
© CNES 2010. Encompassing majestic snowcapped peaks of the Hindu Kush-Himalayas, the Sagarmatha National Park World Heritage Site is dominated by Mount Everest (8,848 m).

The policy brief aims to provide decision makers with the sound scientific basis needed to facilitate decision making and effective policies to address the impacts of climate change. A key approach is ecosystem-based adaptation to anticipated climate change. This can be supported through payment for ecosystem services: incentives offered to communities or land managers to manage their land to provide specific services, possibly as part of offset schemes.

The policy brief is the result of regional workshops organized last year to gather inputs from Africa, Asia and Latin America, through which research needs and vulnerabilities were identified, as well as best practices highlighting community adaptation initiatives for each region.

The exhibition ‘Climate change impacts on mountain regions of the world’ demonstrates that mountains, with many glaciers retreating under the influence of rising temperatures, are key indicators of climate change. Using satellite images, the panels highlight the critical functions of mountains, and the implications of climate change for mountain ecosystems, water resources and livelihoods. It is being presented to the public by UNESCO’s International Hydrological Programme (IHP) and its Man and the Biosphere Programme (MAB), with the support of the UNESCO Office in Lima, until 13 December 2014.

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”guided tours by the UNESCO Office in Lima
© UNESCO Lima. The UNESCO Office in Lima took students on a guided tour of the exhibition ‘Climate change impacts on mountain regions of the World’