11 Dec 2018 Story Ecosystems and Biodiversity

Lofty peaks: why glaciers matter

Photo by Christian Pondella/Red Bull Content Pool

International Mountain Day on 11 December reminds us of the importance of mountains (peaks and uplands) as providers of valuable plant and animal species, as homes for indigenous peoples, and as sources of fresh water.

Next time you visit Tanzania, take a good look at Mount Kilimanjaro… Because despite having been around for about 12,000 years, the world-famous African glacier could disappear as soon as 2030.

Melting glaciers are among the most visible effects of climate change; as temperatures rise we continue to lose these majestic and ancient features of the environment.

Mountains face unique challenges in a changing climate. Solutions for many of these threats have been developed in mountainous countries across the world, such as protecting highland forests in Uganda or building protection against glacial lake outburst floods in Peru.

“Mountain ecosystems are critical to the lives of over half of the world’s population,” says Satya Tripathi, Assistant Secretary-General and Head of UN Environment’s New York Office. “They are a source of water, energy, agriculture and other essential goods and services. But they are vanishing in front of our eyes.

For example, Venezuela's last glacier, the Humboldt glacier in the Andes is about to disappear. On the other side of the world, the world’s highest glaciers in the Himalayas are also shrinking, threatening livelihoods and water security.”

Climate change creates unprecedented challenges which means that sharing experiences and global cooperation is crucial for successful adaptation.

Vulnerable mountains

The governments of Austria, Albania and Poland together with UN Environment, the Alpine Convention, the Carpathian Convention, CONDESAN (an Andean platform for issues related to natural resource management and sustainable development), the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), GRID-Arendal and a range of other mountain partners, hosted a side-event at the United Nations climate change conference in Katowice, Poland, to raise awareness of the vulnerability of mountains to climate change and the need to strengthen global cooperation between mountain countries.

Will Gadd and Sarah Huenniken walking a mountain trail in Tanzania. Photo by Christian Pondella/Red Bull Content Pool.

At the event, UN Environment and GRID-Arendal launched the Mountain Adaptation Outlook Series Synthesis Report which presents an overview of current gaps in mountain adaptation in the target areas of a UN Environment project funded by Austria called Climate change action in developing countries with fragile mountainous ecosystems from a sub-regional perspective.

The event also featured the launch of the Outlook on Climate Change Adaptation in the Hindu Kush Himalayas, a collaboration between GRID-Arendal, ICIMOD and UN Environment.

The report presents the main climate change impacts, current policies and gaps in the highest and largest mountain region in the world. Nearly two billion people depend on fresh water from the Hindu Kush Himalayas, so climate change impacts here will have profound effects on the world economy and vulnerable communities in the high mountains.

New UN Environment Mountain Hero

UN Environment Mountain Hero Will Gadd raises awareness on disappearing glaciers. He is one of the world’s most prominent ice climbers and will be supporting UN Environment as our newest Mountain Hero.

Among his many accomplishments, he has established ice climbing routes across the planet and has set the world record twice for the longest distance covered by paragliding (423 km).

At the heart of the Mountain Heroes campaign are extraordinary athletes who dedicate some of their time to raise awareness of environmental issues, in particular environmental protection of mountains, where early indicators of the effects of climate change are already becoming visible.

Mountain Heroes already include Sabrina Simader, the Kenyan skier, and Michael Strasser, an Austrian Cyclist, who recently broke the world record for the fastest cycle from the northern tip of North America to the southern tip of Patagonia.

Will Gadd scaling a glacier on Mt Kilimanjaro, in Tanzania, in 2014. Photo by Christian Pondella/Red Bull Content Pool

All glaciers in the tropics will be gone in the next few decades as a result of climate change. And in nearly all mountain areas across the world glaciers are melting rapidly. In 2014, Will Gadd climbed the remaining parts of the glacier on Mount Kilimanjaro, the highest mountain in Africa and the highest free-standing mountain in the world at 5,895 metres.

Climbers and mountaineers also have a responsibility to protect the landscapes they enjoy. It will take cooperation between all stakeholders of mountains to increase awareness of the unique challenges they face.

That’s why UN Environment is also partnering with the International Climbing and Mountaineering Federation to boost environmental protection in mountainous areas. The work includes training mountain guides on sustainability issues in collaboration with the International Federation of Mountain Guides Associations. One example is working with the climbing and mountaineering community on reducing the amount of litter left in these fragile landscapes.

For further information please contact Matthias Jurek: matthias.jurek[at]un.org, Musonda Mumba:  Musonda.mumba[at]un.org  or Magnus Andresen: Magnus.Andresen[at]un.org