In the Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York, we have good winters and bad winters. In a good winter, we receive over 200’ inches of snow which fuels the local economy. Tourists from across the northeast travel to the area for the hundreds of miles of snowmobile trails, local small ski resorts and a host of other outdoor winter activities. In a bad year, the snow does not come. This forces small businesses to layoff employees as the local economies struggle to make summer revenues last through the long off season.
– Michael Green, Executive Director
The Adirondacks are not alone. Very similar scenarios are seen across the globe in mountain regions. Mountain ecosystems play a pivotal role in protecting the environment and also play a vital role in providing livelihoods. Melting glaciers, concentration of snowfall into less frequent and more intense storms, as well as unseasonable weather are causing growing challenges in these local communities as the climate changes faster than these economies can adapt to.
Mountains may be grand and mighty but they are also fragile ecosystems, easily disrupted by variations in climate. Reduction of mountain resources are likely to have major downstream consequences. Changes in rainfall patterns, shrinking glaciers, and decreasing snowpack – all predicted in climate change models – will drastically disrupt the balance between water supply and demand.
For foothill communities, climate change is already a very real threat to local livelihoods. A deadly mix of heavy rain, hail and landslides in Pune, India has killed hundreds and destroyed billions of dollars worth of infrastructure. Melting permafrost in the Swiss Alps brings massive debris flows downhill, threatening Swiss villages and businesses. Peru and Bolivia have experienced dramatic rates of glacier depletion in the Andes that will diminish long-term water availability. In the mountainous countries of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan late frost and earlier snowmelt threaten their irrigation-reliant agricultural systems. The stakes are high as these local disasters carry global impact.
Increasing global temperatures pose a serious threat to our world’s natural “water towers” which supply half of the world’s population with freshwater. Rising temperatures affect water supply far and wide, and this is especially the case in mountainous zones. Snowpack in the Sierra Nevada mountain range, California’s largest and most important water storage reservoir, is at its lowest level in 500 years. This is highly alarming as roughly 80 percent of California’s precipitation happens in the winter and is then stored and used during the summer.
In my beloved mountain range, the Adirondacks, fragile mountain ecosystems are becoming severely threatened. The Adirondacks are home to the largest alpine vegetation zone on the east coast of the United States. Researchers are already seeing vegetal shift as the ecosystem’s extant species of flora and fauna migrate northward or to higher elevations. If significant steps are not taken to cut emissions, the Adirondack Mountains could see a devastating level of warming which would ultimately destroy the largest state park in the continental United States. Even with more moderate warming the area could see the loss of spruce-fir forests and alpine tundra.
Government leaders, development organizations and business groups are in full attendance at the 21st session of the Conference of Parties (COP), taking place this year in Paris, to call for urgent action on climate change. All governments currently negotiating must bear in mind our vulnerable mountain ecosystems during the negotiations – for the sake of these economies.
One of the industries being hardest hit is outdoor winter recreation. Kate Williams of 1% for the Planet, based in Burlington Vermont, is concerned about the role climate change is having on the local skiing industry: “My local economy, the kids that mine go to school with, (their family) is supported by the ski industry. For us it has an economic impact but also the effect of changing the culture”.
Likewise the highly visited Swiss Alps, which generate $65 billion in annual revenue and employs 10-12% of Alpine residents, are in danger. Dr. Andreas Fischlin, teacher at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, says that “glaciers are projected to completely go (away) if we do not manage to keep temperatures well below two degrees.” With rising temperatures, winter tourism declines. The European Union surveyed over 10,000 Alpine ski operations and found that with only 1°C more warming, only 500 ski areas will remain snowy and with 4°C more, only 200. Add that to higher chances of landslides, floods, and avalanches, not to mention other negative consequences of such a high degree of warming, and it is not difficult to see that a lot of economic activity would be severely disrupted. This is not a change that only affects one industry or community, it affects the entirety of the culture. Even the Swiss national anthem reflects the unique nature of the country: “the alps glow bright with splendor,” referring to the highly reflective snow and ice, which serves as the iconic swiss landscape.
The outdoor recreation industry, which contributes $646 billion annually to the US economy, is in a position to make a change. Patagonia, a founding member of the Outdoor Industry Association, has joined activists and business leaders at COP21 to discuss the role of consumers in a low-carbon future. Patagonia invests 1% of sales each year in grassroots environmental organizations, exactly the kind of organizations that would work to protect a mountain side from development. Patagonia’s President of Environmental Activism, Lisa Pike Sheehy, says “we need to invest not only our resources in our own business, in our supply chain and our manufacturing, to do the least amount of harm, but to also invest in civil society and support a diverse and vibrant environment of NGOs and activists”.
Successful negotiations in Paris should result in partnerships amongst governments, businesses, and mountain communities to attract green investments in mountain areas, and create such a vibrant community of actors. Now is the time for political leaders to recognize the economic challenges threatening mountain communities, and carefully consider what the impact of a changing climate means for local mountain area economies and fragile and ever so important mountain ecosystems.