When I was little, I spent my summers in a small village on Mount Kallidromos. A small mountain, not very well known, but in my eyes then it could have been Mount Everest. So, every year, I had a goal, to reach the top of the mountain. From year to year, I was getting closer, until one August afternoon, I managed to achieve my goal. I still remember the feelings of that day, when I saw my reward, a wonderful sunset behind the mountain. After many years, I still remember that feeling. That sense of exploration, and discovery.
For us orophiles, this is a familiar feeling. For the rest, you don’t know what you are missing. Mountains have always been a source of awe and imagination. Mount Olympus, the highest mountain in Greece is the home of the gods in Greek Mythology. But there are many more that make the mountains so amazing. Today, I will tell you about two, natural resources and diversity.
Mountains are the earth’s water tanks. Almost every source of freshwater originates in some mountain. This is a result of both low temperatures and geology. Low temperatures help to store water in the form of ice. The ice melts in the spring, and we get clean water throughout the dry summer months. Also, the mountains’ geology can hold rainwater for many months or even years after it is poured into the earth.
Apart from this, it also rains more in the mountains. This phenomenon is called orographic precipitation. As the air with humidity lifts when it meets a mountain, it cools down, and its volume decreases. When the air reaches its saturation point, clouds are formed and eventually rain.
This is why we enjoy freshwater even when it’s not raining for a while. Otherwise, all the rain would flow into the ocean in a few days at most.
But there is more to it than water. One-third of the forests worldwide are found in the mountains. And this while mountains cover just 24% of the earth’s land area. Forests are in great danger because of climate change and human activity. Mountain forests are not immune to climate change. On the contrary, they can be even more prone to climate change because of the fragile balance between elevation zones. Yet, they might be less endangered by humans. Mountains’ topography and climate are quite difficult for most activities. In most cases, it’s too cold and too sloppy to do anything, except for livestock grazing and tourism. Livestock grazing is a serious threat, but one of the most destructive activities of forests, agriculture, is harder in the mountains. There is simply not enough usable space.
Besides their aid in the carbon dioxide levels, mountain forests also help to store water and prevent erosion. They are one of the most valuable resources of the earth, even if rainforests are more in the spotlight. And they can be protected without conflicting with agriculture.
Mountain ecosystems are among the most diversified on earth. Usually, jungles beat them, but after that, it’s hard to find a more diversified ecosystem on the planet. The main reason is the elevation zones. Generally, temperature decreases as the elevation increases, about 6–10 °C every 1000 m depending on a few factors. This is attributed to the less dense air as we move up in altitude, which limits the amount of heat that the air can store. In addition to that, some other factors play a crucial role in the mountain climate, like the aspect. Many mountains have a sunny and a shaded side, where conditions vary and especially in winter. As a result, different climate zones form at different elevations with their own unique ecosystem. For example, Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa (technically a volcano) has at least 5 climate zones. From jungles to glaciers, all in the same mountain. To find the same climate zones on lowlands, you would have to travel from the tropics to the arctics. That’s more than 5,000 km, a thousand times the height of Mount Kilimanjaro. Especially the mountains in the tropics are overflowing with biodiversity. The northern Andean mountain range has more than 45,000 plant species, of which almost half are endemic.
There are other factors that make the mountains so full of diversity and life. Geology, remoteness, and lack of human activity certainly have something to do with it. Still, it is a puzzling thing for scientists, as it has been discussed in this article:
So, why is diversity important? Would it be so bad to have two or three species of plants and animals? It turns out that diversity is what’s holding the earth’s ecosystem together. For example, if some plant is endangered because of unfavorable conditions, there are many more alternatives for the animals. Biodiversity is the reason that “life always finds a way”.
But there is another form of diversity in the mountains, the cultural diversity. And like biodiversity, cultural diversity is vital. You may have heard of the Hunza Valley. A mountainous valley in Pakistan at an average elevation of 2,500 km. In the Hunza district, around 250,000 people speak 4 different languages. One of them, the Burushaski language, is one of the language isolates of the world. This means that it has no relation to any other language of the world. Not even with the ones of the neighboring areas. This variety is a result of years and years of isolation in a specific landscape. Anthropologists talk a lot about the role of the environment in human perception. Tim Ingold, in his amazing work “The Perception of the Environment”, discusses how human skills are not inherited but are grown in a certain environment. It’s no surprise then that remoteness and isolation can produce unique skills that reflect in the culture.
A harsh environment can make people difficult, suspicious, and sometimes xenophobic. In such a closed society, people develop their own characteristics, more out of necessity than beliefs. Yet, this diversity is what gives people identity. In light of globalization, there are so few things that can make us connect with people and places. I am not a black-and-white person. I love the internet and what it has offered to our civilization. But, unique local cultures are an amazing source of identity and connection. It cannot be replaced by blogs and chats.
Mountains are in great danger and if things go wrong, we will pay it dearly. Climate change can destroy the rich environment of the mountains. For example, risen temperatures can lead to less ice and more forest fires in the mountains. Since typically those forests are not used to such phenomena, the impact can be even more disastrous. Fewer mountain forests will lead to less biodiversity and more erosion. More erosion and less ice will lead to less freshwater. Less biodiversity will lead to less stable ecosystems, and so on. It’s a vicious circle that intensifies each run.
Cultural diversity has also an enemy, tourism. Unfortunately, tourism has degraded many remote mountain places. It’s not that tourism is bad, it’s how it is done. Often, and in an attempt of quick profit, people tend to shadow their unique culture favoring more mainstream solutions. Small businesses are replaced by large multinational companies. Grand ski resorts take the place of small local activities. Local products are replaced by cheaper imported goods and more.
Mountains are amazing, but they are in danger. Protect them.