Mountains as Sentinels of Change: Summary from Belmont Forum

Katie May Laumann ·
1 February 2019

Belmont Forum participants worked together to create a sketch (top) for a conceptual diagram that represented 'Mountains as Sentinels of Change'. The finalized diagram (bottom) will be featured in the upcoming synthesis publication. Figure credit: Yesenia Valverde.

Mountain regions are ecologically important worldwide. They are home to incredible biodiversity, providing critical habitat for many species. They also provide critical resources to people. These include timber, food, and fresh water, which is used not only for consumption and irrigation, but also for hydropower. Although climate change is a worldwide threat, its impact on mountains is particularly strong and troubling. High elevation areas tend to experience intensified climate-change induced warming.

In working with the Mountains as Sentinels of Change researchers at Belmont Forum, I was struck by the unique ways different groups identify and approach common threats. These groups identify the major threats to montane communities as climate change, land use needs, and economic and population growth. These pressures impact food and water security, the availability of other natural resources, and the very survival of species. Approaches to mitigate these impacts ranged from the study of historic methods and patterns of adaptation, the identification of ways to improve sustainable development, and the engagement of stakeholders in local communities to work towards solving issues within their control. The details of the following projects provide unique insights into local adaptation to global change.

Bill Dennison presents to Mountains as Sentinels of Change researchers. Photo credit: Sky Swanson

ECCAP: Ecological Calendars and Climate Adaptation in the Pamirs

Food security is increasingly threatened by climate change;
unpredictable weather patterns disrupt farming practices and outcomes. This is
particularly damaging for small, subsistence farming communities. The
indigenous people of the Pamir Mountains historically used “ecological
calendars,” a way of timing agricultural activities based on ecological signs. This
has fallen out of practice, but may provide a key to adapting farming practices
to climate variability. ECCAP is integrating climate science, indigenous
knowledge, and phenology to increase the ability of farmers to adapt to, and
perhaps predict, new weather patterns. This will inform farming practices and,
ideally, bolster food security.

ClimateWise: Climate-Smart Watershed Investments in the Montane Tropics of South America

The limited water resources in the montane tropics of South
America, as well as the millions of people who depend on them, are threatened
by climate change and land use issues. Efforts to address water security issues
have led to large investments in watershed services, but it is unclear how
effective these efforts are, and whether they will provide sustainable water
resources in the long term. ClimateWise is working with stakeholders in
vulnerable communities to identify the factors informing water resource
management in this region.

NILE-NEXUS: Opportunities for a sustainable food-energy-water future in the Blue Nile Mountains of Ethiopia

Many small farming communities in Ethiopia’s mountains rely
on rich local water resources. These resources are also the site of recent
hydropower development, adding land-use pressures to an area already challenged
by climate change, population growth, and economic development. NILE-NEXUS is
engaging stakeholders to identify strategies to facilitate threat adaptation and
sustainable water use.

CLIMTREE: Ecological and socioeconomic impacts of climate-induced tree diebacks in highland forests

In addition to food and water resources, mountains provide timber,
a resource that provides for the livelihoods of many people in European and
Chinese mountain forests. Climate change is leading to tree die-offs and the
replacement of native trees with non-native species, threatening timber and
other natural resources. Human and natural systems must adapt to these changes
in biodiversity. Frequently, human impacts are the focus of management, but
changes to the natural communities supported by forests must also be considered.
CLIMTREE uses data drawn from ecological and socioeconomic research projects to
develop more efficient and effective approaches to forest management.

P3: People, pollution, and pathogens: mountain ecosystems in a human-altered world

P3 is studying the impacts of anthropogenic change,
including climate change, on mountain regions in four countries: China, Oman,
France, and the United States. In addition to focusing on ecological impacts,
P3 seeks to identify potential societal impacts of anthropogenic change. P3 works
to identify tangible indicators of undesirable anthropogenic change, to aid
policymakers’ efforts to address these changes and assess the efficacy of
enacted legislation.

VULPES: VULnerability of Populations under Extreme Scenarios

Using a combination of paleontological, historical, and
genetic data, VULPES is studying how past changes in climate have impacted
ecological mountain communities. They are investigating the potential for small
pockets of preserved habitat to support the continued existence of species as
climate change threatens their survival. Additionally, they are studying how
well species may adapt to climate change, their potential ability to migrate
from unsuitable environmental conditions, and what conditions will lead not
just to species decline, but to extinction. They are also studying how human
land-use can change to adapt to climate change and benefit natural and human

These unique projects employ a variety of strategies to study the threats climate change, population growth, and economic and land use development pose to mountainous communities. In addition to studying the impacts of these threats, they are working to identify solutions. I am inspired by the level of hope they provide for montane regions to adapt to these dire threats.

About the author

Katie May Laumann

Katie May earned a PhD in Marine Science (Virginia Institute of Marine Science) and an MA in Conservation Biology (Columbia University). Her research experience includes sturgeon phylogenetics and seafood sustainability. Before IAN, Katie May worked as a science outreach educator in Maine. She has also worked in fisheries management, sustainability certification, and grant writing. Katie May enjoys traveling and hiking. Her favorite hiking experiences include summiting Huayna Picchu in Peru and watching the sunrise from Mount Fuji. She lives in Shady Side with her husband and Berlioz, the best cat in the world.

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