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APPENDIX 1.5 World Heritage Sites, the World Conservation Union (IUCN) and UNEP’s Global Programme of Action
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Olav Slaymaker and Christine Embleton-Hamann
There is greater geodiversity in mountains than in most
other landscapes (Barsch and Caine, 1984). Mountain geosystems are not exceptionally fragile but they show a greater
range of vulnerability to disturbance than many landscapes.
Forested slopes give place to alpine tundra over short vertical
distances; resistant bedrock slopes alternate with intensively
cultivated soils and erodible unconsolidated sediments over
short horizontal distances. Mountain systems account for
roughly 20% of the terrestrial surface area of the globe.
Mountains are high and steep so that when natural
hazards occur, whether seismic, volcanic, mass movements
or ﬂoods, the disturbance is transmitted readily through the
geosystem. When inappropriate land use changes are made,
vegetation and soils are rapidly removed. Because of the
steep terrain, low temperatures and the relatively thin soils,
the recovery of mountain geosystems from disturbance is
often slow and sometimes fails completely. Mountains
provide the direct life support base for 10–20% of humankind (statistics differ on this point; see Appendix 2.1) and
indirectly affect the lives of more than 50%. Because of
signiﬁcant elevation differences, mountains such as the
Himalayas, the Andes, the Rocky Mountains and the Alps
show, within short horizontal and vertical distances, climatic
regimes similar to those of widely separate latitudinal belts.
Because of the compressed life zones with elevation and
small-scale biodiversity caused by different topoclimates,
mountain systems are of prime conservation value. Körner
and Ohsawa (2005) estimate that 32% of protected areas are in
mountains (9345 protected areas covering about 1.7 Mkm2).
Human well-being also depends on mountain geodiversity and biodiversity. Mountain systems are especially
important for the provision of clean water and the safety
of settlements and transport routes depends directly on
ability to cope with natural hazards. Slope stability and
erosion control are also closely interdependent with a healthy
and continuous vegetation cover. Key mountain resources
and services include water for hydroelectricity and irrigation,
ﬂood control, agriculture, mineral resources, timber, tourism
and medicinal plants. Geographically fragmented mountains
also support a high ethnocultural diversity (Körner and
Ohsawa, 2005). For many societies, mountains have spiritual
signiﬁcance, and scenic landscapes and clean air make
mountains target regions for recreation and tourism.
During the past three decades, the world’s population has
doubled, the mountain regions’ population has more than
tripled and stresses on the physical and biological systems
of the Earth have intensiﬁed many fold. The implications of
the emergence of the human factor and the ramiﬁcations
in terms of environmental degradation and enhancement in
mountains have still to be fully explored. Ninety percent of
the global mountain population (between 600 million and
1.2 billion people) lives in developing countries and countries in transition. Some 90–180 million mountain people,
and almost everyone living above 2500 m above sea level,
live in poverty and are considered to be especially vulnerable to environmental change (Huddleston, 2003). Some
claim that most, if not all, of the major mountain problems
and their solutions are triggered and shaped by developments outside the mountains (Price, 1999). Deforestation,
accelerated erosion, overpopulation and depopulation are
processes that are heavily inﬂuenced by ‘indirect’ drivers,
such as outside socioeconomic forces. But our chief concern
here is to determine the triggers of global environmental
change in mountain regions. We make no claims in this
volume to do more than to document the direct drivers as
we understand them and to urge that the implications of
these changes, both positive and negative, be incorporated
into informed policy recommendations affecting twentyﬁrst-century mountain landscapes.
Geomorphology and Global Environmental Change, eds. Olav Slaymaker, Thomas Spencer and Christine Embleton-Hamann. Published by
Cambridge University Press. © Cambridge University Press 2009.
Olav Slaymaker and Christine Embleton-Hamann
The major direct drivers of environmental change in
mountains are relief, hydroclimate and land use. Not only
are they important in themselves but they are commonly so
closely interrelated that it becomes difﬁcult to rank their
relative importance and, indeed, their status, whether dependent or independent. Precisely which of these drivers is most
important in any speciﬁc mountain setting and how they
should be ranked individually and in combination is a matter
for research. One of the greatest challenges facing mountain scientists is to separate environmental change caused
by human activities from change that would have occurred
without human interference (i.e. relief and hydroclimate)
(Marston, 2008). Linking cause and effect is especially
difﬁcult in mountain regions where physical processes
alone can operate at exceptionally high rates. Some of the
major issues in mountain landscapes are the measurement
and modelling of geomorphic change; the role of mountain
land use and land cover change; and the assessment of
mountain landform/landscape vulnerability and sustainability.
Perhaps the most distinctive characteristic of the three
drivers of change is the temporal scale at which they operate and make their impacts on landforms and landscapes.
This is especially important to note in the context of making
projections for the twenty-ﬁrst century and in assessing the
possibilities of or necessity for remedial action. Mountain
relief evolves over millions of years but may generate
natural hazards within minutes that may take decades to
mitigate; mountain climate has evolved over the Quaternary
Period, may participate in almost instantaneous extreme
weather and ﬂood events and may also take years to mitigate.
Population and land use have evolved over the Holocene
Epoch; their collective impact was ﬁrst seen between 5 and
8 ka BP, but this impact has dramatically increased during
the past century to the point that in 1990 it was noted for the
ﬁrst time that human activities had now impacted more than
50% of the terrestrial globe (Turner et al., 1990). Change,
however, is not always negative: there is commonly a
balance sheet of both positive and negative effects: deltas
may be devastated by ﬂoods but will beneﬁt in the following years from the addition of fertile soil; arid landscapes
may incur costs and beneﬁts from extra moisture; cold
landscapes both lose and gain from warming; and landscapes undergoing change of land use may be either
enhanced or ruined, depending on the way in which that
land use change is implemented. The combination of
extreme geophysical events with exceptional population
growth and land use modiﬁcations underlines the urgency
of better understanding of these interactions and working
out the implications for adaptation to and mitigation of the
effects of these drivers of change on landforms and
There are two necessary conditions to deﬁne ‘mountains’:
high gradient and high absolute elevation above sea level.
Relief roughness, or local elevation range, is a useful
surrogate for gradient (Plate 7). We therefore adopted a
deﬁnition of mountains as land systems with both high
gradient (a local elevation range (LER) greater than 300 m
5 km− 1) and elevation (greater than 500 m above sea level).
This deﬁnition excludes large plateaus, such as Tibet. Using
similar criteria (Appendix 2.1), Meybeck et al. (2001)
generated nine global relief types, only two of which are
mountain regions: (a) low to mid-elevation mountains and
(b) high and very high mountains. In this chapter, we have
expanded these mountain regions to four, all four of which
have a LER which exceeds 300 m 5 km− 1. These four
mountain regions are identiﬁed as:
Class 1: Low mountains having a zonal elevation range
from 500 to 1000 m above sea level. They occupy an
estimated 6.3 Mkm ² and have between 175 and 350
million inhabitants; population estimates vary by a factor
of 2 (Appendix 2.1);
Class 2: Mid-elevation mountains having a zonal elevation range from 1000 to 2500 m above sea level
(c. 11 Mkm ² and 290–580 million inhabitants);
Class 3: High mountains having a zonal elevation range
from 2500 to 4500 m above sea level (c. 3.9 Mkm ² and
60–120 million inhabitants); and
Class 4: Very high mountains more than 4500 m above
sea level (c. 1.8 Mkm ² and 4–8 million inhabitants).
(N.B. the upper estimate of population, from Meybeck
et al. (2001), is 1420 million, which includes approximately
360 million in ‘mountains’ between 300 and 500 m above
High and very high mountains (Classes 3 and 4; greater
than 2500 m above sea level) are closely associated with the
most recent alpine orogenesis in Europe, Asia, Australasia
and the Americas, rifting and active volcanism and isostatically rebounded glaciated regions. Included are the North
and South American cordilleras, the European Alps–Zagros,
the Caucasus–Elburz, the Pamir-Alai–Tien-Shan and the
Karakoram–Himalaya, East Africa, Hawaii, the western
Paciﬁc Rim and the north and northeast Siberian ranges.
2.1.2 Holocene climate change in mountains
It is important to recognise that mountain landscapes have a
history. They have a tectonic history and a denudational
history, and the relative effectiveness of these processes
determines the absolute scale and the rate of change of
FIGURE 2.1. Holocene climate changes in the mountains. Summary of glacier expansion phases in different areas of the world during the
Holocene (possible times of widespread advances are indicated by black bars on the horizontal axis) (modiﬁed from Bradley, 1999).
mountains (Schumm, 1963). Mountain landscapes also have
a climatic history, and past climates leave traces of their past
impacts on the contemporary landscape. This effect is most
obvious in the case of alternations of glacial and interglacial
climates during the Quaternary Period (see Chapter 1).
Glacier advances and historical records
Alpine glacier extent has varied over the past millennium
within a range deﬁned by the extremes of the Little Ice Age
and today’s reduced glacier stage. We appear to be evolving
towards or even beyond the warmest phases of Holocene
variability. Such a conclusion is reinforced by the discovery
of the Oetztal ice man, who had been buried by snow/ice
over 5000 years ago and melted out in 1991, and the
discovery of well-preserved wooden bows, dated around
4 ka BP (Haeberli, 1994). Artefacts melting from glacier
and ice patches have been documented from a number of
mountain areas in North America (Dixon et al., 2005).
There is little support for the notion that Holocene glacier
ﬂuctuations were exactly synchronous throughout the
world, though attempts have been made to deﬁne episodes
in which glacier advance has occurred in many regions
(Fig. 2.1). Such episodes are called neoglacials. Reasons
for the complexity of the mountain glacier record include
regional climatic ﬂuctuations (which are neither hemispheric
nor global), poor dating control and discontinuous or
incomplete data sets (Bradley, 1999). Information on cooling
in mountain and upland areas during the Little Ice Age (AD
1550–1850) compared with the Medieval Warm Period are
available from European countries, China and Japan
(Grove, 1988). Barry (1992, 1994) and Diaz and Bradley
(1997) give the best summary of data sources for highelevation sites in Europe and globally respectively. Auer
(2007) provides the richest source of historical instrumental
climatological surface data for the European alpine region.
Because the information from moraines and trim lines is
often partial, attention has moved towards the interpretation
of glacier-fed lakes, the changes in organic matter and the
increase in sediment input to lakes (e.g. Batterbee, 2002).
Von Grafenstein (1999) used oxygen isotope ratios of precipitation inferred from deep lake ostracods from the
Ammersee (in the foothills of the Alps, southern Germany)
to provide a climate record with decadal resolution. The
correlation with central Greenland ice cores between 15 ka
and 5 ka BP is impressive.
Pollen records from lake sediments and peat bogs have a
typical resolution of 50–200 years over time intervals of
1 ka–10 ka respectively (Bradley, 1999, pp. 357–96). The
method involves the examination of the relative frequency
of pollen grains from various plant species in long cores
taken from marshes and peat bogs. Dendrochronology,
which involves converting tree ring width indices to
proxy climate data, depends on the availability of instrumental records long enough to allow correlation between
temperature (or precipitation, where moisture availability is
the critical environmental control) and ring widths. Annual
or even seasonal resolution over hundreds to a few thousand years is possible (Bradley, 1999, pp. 397–438).
Evidence of past changes in tree line position is generally
interpreted in terms of variations in summer temperature
and/or summer moisture. Tree stumps or wood fragments
from above the modern tree line suggest warmer conditions
in the past and this has been documented widely in western
North America, the Urals and Scandinavia. The broad
conclusion is that tree lines were higher from 8 to 6 ka BP
and that tree lines declined after 5 ka BP (Bradley, 1999,
Ice cores provide evidence of changing climates over the
Holocene Epoch through measurement of 18O ratios which
vary systematically with depth within the glacier. At least
eight high-altitude sites have provided ice cores to bedrock:
Quelccaya and Huascarán in Peru, Sajama in Bolivia, Colle
Olav Slaymaker and Christine Embleton-Hamann
Gnifetti and Mont Blanc in Switzerland, Dunde and Guliya
ice caps in western China and Mt Kilimanjaro in East Africa
(Cullen, 2006). At Quelccaya, Huascarán and Dunde there
is evidence of dramatic climatic change in recent decades;
melting is occurring at such an accelerated rate that there is
a danger of permanent loss of ice. Where records extend
back to the last glacial period (Sajama, Huascarán and
Dunde) ice is thin, making a detailed interpretation difﬁcult
2.1.3 Ecological zonation
Ecological zonation in polar, temperate and tropical
Halpin (1994) has investigated the differing sensitivity of
mountain ecosystems to changing climatic conditions at
tropical, temperate and polar sites. A 3900 m hypothetical
mountain with 100 m elevation intervals was digitised into
a raster GIS and used to represent a typical mountain at each
site. A single +3.5 °C temperature and +10% precipitation
change was imposed for all sites. The conceptual model
implied linear shift of all vegetation belts upslope and the
progressive loss of the coolest climatic zones at the peaks of
the mountains. The resulting ecological zonation of the
sites can be seen in Fig. 2.2. According to the simulation,
at the wet tropical Costa Rican site (a), the ﬁve ecological
zones would be reduced to four under a 3.5 °C temperature
and 10% precipitation increase: the subalpine paramo would
probably disappear. At the dry temperate Californian site
(b), eight ecological zones would be reduced to six, but low
and mid-elevation ecological zones would have expanded
ranges; and at the boreal/arctic mountain site (c), in Alaska,
the only ecosystem loss would occur near the base of the
mountain. It should be borne in mind that assumptions of
symmetrical change for mountain systems under global
environmental change can be misleading. Predictions of
vegetation shifts are complicated by uncertainties in speciesspeciﬁc responses to changing atmospheric CO2, in addition to projected regional temperature, precipitation and
soil moisture changes. There are photoperiod constraints
in cold climates and the duration and depth of snow cover
have major ecophysiological impacts.
In order to express the landscape implications of ecological
zoning, the upper timber line or tree line; the modern snow
line and the lower limit of soliﬂuction have been identiﬁed
as being especially sensitive to environmental change.
Messerli (1973) noted that, in the case of African mountain
systems at least, thermal criteria for geoecological zonation
were less important than availability of moisture. He also
FIGURE 2.2. Current ecological zonation for a tropical, temperate
and polar site and hypothetical zonation after climate change
(modiﬁed from Halpin, 1994).
FIGURE 2.3. Horizontal zonation
of geomorphological and climatic
elements from Mediterranean to
tropical high mountains of Africa
(modiﬁed from Messerli, 1973).
emphasised the importance of latitudinal zonation over
continental scales of mountain systems (Fig. 2.3). The
idea of geoecological zonation of mountains is fruitful as
it provides a framework within which the extreme heterogeneity of mountain landscapes, both past and present, can
be considered. The changing magnitude and frequency of
operation of geomorphic processes over Quaternary time is
indexed by the LGM snow line and the lower limit of
bounded at the sides by a channel way or preferred pathway
for sediment, snow, ice or water movement. Aspect, slope
erosion, mass movement and river action give rise to a
lateral zonation which cuts across the vertical zonation
described above (Slaymaker, 1993). The net effect is one
of a lateral zonation which emphasises varying sensitivity
to disturbance (Fig. 2.4b).
Geomorphic process zones and sediment cascades
In an explicit attempt to incorporate geomorphic activity
into the mountain zonation concept a general model of
geomorphic process variation with elevation has been
developed (Fig. 2.4a). In temperate mountain systems
high-elevation slopes are characterised by soliﬂuction,
nivation, talus development and glaciation; mid-elevation
slopes, below the tree line, have landslide, avalanche and
debris ﬂow features; and low-elevation slopes are commonly sediment storage zones. Local-scale lateral zonation
of mountains is caused by gravity-driven processes of slope
erosion, mass movement and river action as well as by other
inﬂuences, such as aspect. These processes intersect the
vertical zonation pattern and subdivide the landscape into
a series of slope facets bounded on the top and bottom by
timber line, snow line, permafrost or periglacial activity and
A working deﬁnition of mountains is offered and mountain
landscapes are shown to have high geodiversity, a geodiversity which is threatened by the rapid rate of growth
of mountain populations. The three drivers of environmental change in mountains are relief, as a proxy for tectonics
(Tucker and Slingerland, 1994), hydroclimate and runoff
(Vandenberghe, 2002) and human activity (Coulthard and
Macklin, 2001). The ﬁrst two of these drivers can be interpreted through proxy records contained in glacier ice cores,
soils and lake sediments. The net effect of the operation of
these drivers over long time periods is a variety of ecological and geomorphic zones, which divide mountain landscapes into clearly delimited facets. The third driver, human
activity, results in land use and land cover patterns that
often cut across the geoecological zones and generate
accelerated landscape disturbance.
Olav Slaymaker and Christine Embleton-Hamann
FIGURE 2.4. (a) Vertical and (b) lateral zonation of major Holocene landforms and processes in Coast Mountains, British Columbia (from
2.2 Direct driver I: relief
Over geological timescales, relief is controlled by tectonic
plate movements and climate, via rates of denudation
(Schumm, 1963). Over contemporary timescales, however,
relief controls climate. At the larger mountain system and
global scales, elevation and gradient are the most important
relief elements in so far as they inﬂuence temperature and
precipitation. Elevation controls the incidence and intensity
of freeze–thaw events as well as orographic precipitation,
and many associated climatic effects. Gradient deﬁnes the
gravitational driving force (g sin α) and inﬂuences radiation
and precipitation receipt, wind regimes and snow. Erosion
rates reported for the Nanga Parbat massif are among the
highest measured (22 ± 11 m ka− 1) and reported rates of
uplift for the Himalayas vary from 0.5 to 20 m ka− 1
(Owen, 2004). Ahnert (1970) developed an equation relating denudation and local relief:
D ¼ 0:1535h
where D is denudation in mm ka− 1 and h is local relief in
m km− 1.
Summerﬁeld and Hulton (1994) analysed 33 basins with
areas greater than 500 000 km ² from every continent except
Antarctica. Total denudation (suspended plus dissolved
load) varied from 4 mm ka− 1 (Kolyma in the Russian Far
East) to 688 mm ka− 1 (Brahmaputra). They found that more
than 60% of the variance in total denudation was accounted
for by basin relief ratio and runoff.
A contentious issue is the relation between drainage
basin area and speciﬁc sediment yield established for basins
in British Columbia (Slaymaker, 1987) and for Canada as a
whole (Church et al., 1999). They demonstrated that in
most of Canada basins of intermediate size and relief have
the highest speciﬁc sediment yields (Caine, 2004). They
contended that the presence in the contemporary landscape
of sediment storage areas, formed in the early Holocene, is
the most important control of speciﬁc sediment yield. They
insisted that it is critical to examine not only relative relief
and elevation, but also the sediment cascade. In so doing it
becomes apparent that there are numerous complications
that modify the direct relation between relief, absolute
elevation and denudation rate, the most important of
which seems to be the presence of a whole variety of sediment sinks. Sediment sinks include lakes, alluvial fans,
proglacial zones and ﬂoodplains, inter alia, and are storage
zones in which sediments may be stored for shorter or
2.2.1 The sediment cascade in mountains
Elevation, downslope gradient, across-slope gradient,
aspect, vertical convexity and horizontal convexity are the
six fundamental components of relief (Evans, 1972).
Vertical and horizontal convexity, which are the rates of
change of gradient downslope and across-slope, and aspect,
which is the preferred orientation of the slope, are important
inﬂuences on environmental change at local scale. Concave
slopes tend to accumulate water and sediment whereas
convex slopes tend to shed water and sediment. Aspect
controls the amount of solar radiant energy received at the
surface and, especially in mountain systems, leads to highly
contrasted slope climates on, for example, north- and southfacing slopes (known in the French literature as ubac
(shady) and adret (sunny) slopes). The potential energy of