16 July 2020
Without a definition of mountains, how can we do mountain research?
A definition of mountains is not necessary for our friends and families; they know very well when they are in the mountains. Where this definition is needed to be known and accepted is in academia, an extremely complex world that requires precise definitions of virtually everything with which we work.
In this world, when we say that a variable is normal (although we should say “it has a normal distribution”), we do not mean that it behaves normally, but that the distribution of its values makes a Gaussian curve. And we already understand each other. When we talk about uncertainty, we are not referring to the fact that we are unsure of something; we mean that there is a certain degree of error, which is normal and measurable, in our conclusions. This uncertainty is far from what general society understands by “I’m not sure.” In academia, we have, because we need, very specific definitions. Or at least we should have them.
Let me get a little closer to the mountains—passing by the coast first. When a researcher works along the coast, there is no doubt that he or she is focused on a specific area that extends on either side of the line that connects seas or oceans with the mainland or islands. The strip may be more or less wide, but there is not much room for doubt. This does not happen when we talk about mountains. Everyone would agree with the definition given by the Oxford English Dictionary, where a mountain is defined as “a natural elevation of the earth’s surface rising more or less abruptly from the surrounding level and attaining an altitude which, relative to the adjacent elevation, is impressive or remarkable” (taken from Wikipedia). But the words “more or less”, “relative to,” and “impressive or remarkable” are too ambiguous and subjective for academia. What happens if a researcher asks for a project on mid-elevation mountain areas, but for the reviewer mountains are only areas with glaciers and significant slopes? Surely the project will be rejected, and probably not with bad intentions, but simply because the definition of mountain differs.
This is one of the reasons why I think NEMOR is important, at least for the European mountains. At NEMOR we have adopted the definition of mountain proposed by the European Environmental Agency. It is based on specific topographic features rather than vague cultural attributes. We believe that this definition is correct (though perhaps a bit complex) and should be accepted by all actors working in mountain areas. Without this, it is difficult to do research in the European mountains.
But NEMOR does not exist only for this.
I go back to the coast. Coastal areas are those wonderful places that in tourist ads always appear deserted, with clear turquoise water and perfect horizons. Certainly, these images are inviting and convincing, so we go. Surprisingly, we find beaches that are crowded, with water that’s not necessarily clean and horizons that are marred by ships of all kinds and sizes, many of which contribute to loss of water quality and biodiversity.
Now to the mountains. In tourist pamphlets, mountains also appear wonderfully deserted. They’re majestic and powerful, with perhaps the silhouette of one or a few people to convey a certain marketing message. If we focus on Europe (the world is too diverse to make broader generalizations), mountain regions surely have much more diverse social and economic characteristics than coastal areas do. We have very remote mountainous regions, such as the little-visited Carpathians, and crowded tourist destinations (these, yes, similar to the beaches) like many regions of the Alps.
Coasts and mountains, two of the most beautiful socio-ecological systems in the world, have opposite development challenges. While many coastal areas are looking for ways to escape the massive, often low-cost, tourism that brings questionable social and environmental benefits, mountain areas—both the most crowded and the most remote—have to re-invent themselves. Why?
They have climate change. Ski resort managers see less snow and more stochastic snow events; forest managers see fires, virtually non-existent a couple of decades ago, becoming a real and increasingly likely danger. Climate change is affecting mountain areas more quickly and evidently than the surrounding lowlands, and climate change models do not allow us to be too optimistic in this regard.
They have land use change. While it is true that overall the population of mountain regions has not changed significantly (with exceptions, of course), the distribution has, with people abandoning farms and isolated villages to move into valley towns, where there’s easier access to health and education services. Important consequences of this include a loss of diversity in land use and traditional practices. And we must add the arrival of outsiders from the big cities, who import social and cultural models that are not necessarily bad but that dilute the cultural and very diverse heritage of mountain regions.
They have the resources. Mountains are great donors of resources for humans. From the list of ecosystem services to the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, mountains contribute in varying degrees to virtually all of them. Here we’ll highlight two: on the one hand, they are great tourist destinations (for sports, health, religion, etc.); on the other hand, and very importantly, they are the water towers of Europe. The mountains store a large amount of water, which must be managed efficiently for different uses (consumption, agriculture, industry, etc.), most in far-away areas. The likely decline in available water due to climate change will require new ways of management.
They have biodiversity. Isolation, topography, and climate compression have made mountain regions hot-spots of biodiversity. They are home to more than 85% of the world’s species of amphibians, birds, and mammals, many of which are entirely restricted to mountains. Also, several of the Natura2000 sites are located in mountain regions. Biodiversity is a natural heritage that must be conserved, either for its intrinsic value or for the ecosystem services it provides (soil retention, improved air quality, resilience to disturbances, genetic storage, medical uses … the list is long!)
They have inhabitants. The biggest challenges facing most people in mountain areas include access to various services. Two of the previous posts (here and here) talk about education, but there is also a general need to improve access to health-related services, transportation, and communication and information technologies. Unfortunately, in many places decisions about these aspects are made in the capitals, often far from the mountains. We must also keep in mind that the locals are the ones who live every day in this rapidly changing environment to which they must also adapt. It is an absolutely necessary strategy, because ….
…mountains have visitors, the big ‘consumers’ of the services that mountain areas offer. The tourism sector is very important in most European mountains (and wants to be where it is not yet), and just as locals have to adapt to global change, visitors should too. The current model, where demand often forces supply at any cost, needs to change. It is a huge collective effort, but surely necessary.
While this post is personal, I know that we at NEMOR see mountain areas as having at least all these challenges, which we consider opportunities for development that must be sustainable and in line with the Sustainable Development Goals. We understand mountain areas as systems that, despite being hugely connected to the valleys, should not be so unilaterally dependent on them. But we can address these challenges only if we all agree on what a mountain is.