Our Mountains Aren't Immune to Climate Change

Melting glaciers, temperature change, and changes to the water cycle threaten mountainous ecosystems across the world.

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In mountainous Colorado, the wildfire season is at least a month longer than it was in 1979.

That’s likely due to the massive 0.54 degrees Fahrenheit warming among mountain regions in the Alps, Asia, and United States. That has massive environmental effects on the rest of the regions, the worst of which scientists don’t know yet.

Mountain snowpack — the vital concentration of solid water that eventually trickles down through streams — is now melting earlier in the spring. Snow cover duration has also declined by an average of five days per decade, according to the IPCC.

That may sound insignificant, but it’s already having troubling ramifications on local plants and wildlife. Less snow cover means more frequent rockslides, avalanches, and even floods. These changes compound the disruption to wildlife that longer summers have, irreparably disrupting trophic levels and food chains.

Glaciers — one of the most important part of mountain ecosystems — have been extremely vulnerable to climate change. Their average size is shrinking, leaving less water available to local species and peoples. In the Alps, glaciers shrank by as much as 410 feet. The world’s glaciers have lost a total of 9 trillion tons of ice in the past 58 years.

Rising temperatures also cause premature melting, leading mountain rivers to flow earlier than normal. Indigenous people who depend on these glaciers are seeing their ways of life collapse. As recently as this past September, mourners in Switzerland held a vigil for the disappearing Pizol Glacier, a cultural landmark. In August, Icelandic scientists said goodbye to their first glacier lost to a warming climate. If more melt, it can have disastrous effects.

According to NASA, the Muir Glacier in Alaska has significantly shrunk since the 1800s. From 1941 to 2004, the glacier lost 2,625 feet in thickness, a testament to what warming temperatures can destroy. As a whole, Alaskan glaciers lost an average of 46 gigatons of ice each year from 2003 to 2010.

As temperatures increase, these disappearances are only expected to become more frequent. If we manage to decrease global emissions in the next few years, glaciers in the Alps are slated to lose 66% of their ice. If we don’t get our act together, they will only retain 5% of their ice.

Some studies claim we have less than a few years to avert rapid glacial melt. A team of researchers published a study in Science that warned glacial melt rates could be anywhere from ten to 100 times faster than previously thought.

Runoff, water from rain, snowmelt, or other surface sources, is also expected to change in mountainous locations. The IPCC has warned that unmitigated warming will cause unpredictable runoff patterns, making current water storage and delivery infrastructure obsolete. In 2016, a study in six mountain ranges in the Western U.S. demonstrated that changes in runoff and precipitation will place mountain towns at a heightened risk of flash floods.