CMN student attends the High Mountain Summit in Geneva
By Erin Nicholls
Thanks to the generous funding of the Canadian Mountain Network, I recently had the very rare opportunity to attend the High Mountain Summit in Geneva, Switzerland from October 29th-31st. The Summit is hosted by the WMO and designed to foster high-level dialogue, engage decision-makers and develop a roadmap to science-based user-driven knowledge and information systems. As a young PhD candidate studying Canada’s northwestern mountains, I am constantly surrounded by like-minded scientists, who not only acknowledge the unprecedented, terrifying impacts of climate change in the world’s alpine regions and cryosphere, but also spend their careers trying to understand it. My experience at the Summit however, provided a refreshing perspective on how our decisions as scientists become translated into tangible and meaningful change on the global stage.
Over the three days, 200 world leaders, scientists and politicians from 45 countries discussed the undeniably rapid and unprecedented changes within mountain regions from every corner of the world due to anthropogenically accelerated climate change.
The meeting discussions were centered around the following themes:
- Drivers for action and societal benefits and urgency of coordinated and sustainable hydrometeorological and climate services
- Identifying priority user needs for socially relevant, urgently needed knowledge in support of risk reduction adaptation to climate change, and sustainable development
- How to close the capacity gap on user-oriented and fit-for-purpose prediction and services for weather, hydrology, and climate in the changing cryosphere
- Enhancing mountain observations and access to data coupled with integrated mountain prediction systems
- Research, innovation, and synthesis – leveraging current science developments to improve predictive capability needed for closing the service and information gap
Discussion from experts and political leaders across all these themes had one unifying tone – overt urgency and the need for international and interdisciplinary cooperation. Each speaker had a strict maximum of 10 minutes, and used their time to stress that risks to the cryosphere are happening at intense rates and scales, and that these are happening now. This message was echoed regardless of whether the speakers were referencing the high mountain regions in North or South America, Asia, Africa or Europe. As Shawn Marshall, Science Advisor to the Deputy Minister (Environment Canada) put it, “the cryosphere is under siege.”
Mountains are centres of biological and cultural diversity, traditional knowledge, home to 1.1 billion people, and the headwaters for rivers that support half of humanity. People living in these high mountain areas are typically the most vulnerable and marginalized people, with one in two rural mountain people in developing countries vulnerable to food insecurity. Anthropogenic-induced climate change is causing unprecedented changes to the functions of mountain hydrology, altering and losing critical cryospheric ecosystems, jeopardizing mountains’ capacities to support livelihoods and threatening the availability of freshwater from mountain rivers. As John Pomeroy, Director of Global Water Futures, stated, “We need to recognize the dichotomy of mountains as both a risk and resource – and mountains are where climate change hits the road.” The changing hydrological functions of high mountains and the cryosphere impacts agriculture, forestry, food production, hydropower production, transportation, culture, tourism, recreation, infrastructure, domestic water supply and human health.
Adapting to these changes requires trans-boundary cooperation and appropriate policy frameworks. We do not divide our world by watershed boundaries, but political ones. Stakeholders from varying social and economic sectors, and local communities are not often appropriately engaged in the development of adaptation measures. Mandira Shresthan and David Molden of ICIMOD (International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development), along with many others, emphasized the need to bridge the gap between climate information and the user. Additionally, many speakers stressed that often decisions about mountain resources are made outside mountain areas. We need to unite our monitoring, observation, and prediction efforts to ensure our data is most effectively communicated at the local, regional, national and global scales. Daniel Kull (World Bank) emphasized that global solutions lie within people and institutions, and that communities should be at the forefront.
The logistics of adequate meteorological monitoring, observation and forecasting in these regions remains challenging. Meteorological stations are difficult to access, maintain, and translate data in real-time to communities that need the information for disasters such as avalanches, floods, and glacier lake outburst floods. Most of our hydrological models and understanding of processes were developed in flat, ideal terrain, and cannot be appropriately applied in the spatially variable, complex context of mountains and steep topography. As Richard Essery (International Association of Cyrospheric Sciences-UK) pointed out, “We’re not in Kansas anymore.” The Summit addressed activities requiring high scientific priority moving forward including surface-atmosphere coupling over mountain ranges, regional climate modelling at a spatial resolution closer to that of numerical weather prediction (<1 km), coupled atmospheric-cryospheric-hydrological models, and interdisciplinary and integrated research including risk to social-ecological systems and their hazards, vulnerabilities and exposures.
The meeting concluded with the synthesis of a Call for Action agreed upon by all participants of the High Mountain Summit. The participants committed to the goal of “ensuring all people who live in mountains, or are influenced by mountain Earth system processes downstream, have access to, and use fit-for-purpose hydrological, meteorological and climate information and knowledge that recognize the importance of mountain regions as home of the cryosphere and source of global freshwater and ecosystem services to the world.” This commitment urges governments to review and update their international development cooperation policies, declare a UN International Year of Mountains, explore an integrated global UN mountain framework, and to allocate financial and human resources for long-term and sustainable operation and maintenance of infrastructure needed for providing user-tailored services in mountain cryosphere ecosystems.