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Mountains are l andforms that are characterized by their elevation and slope. A broad description is any landscape feature that is over 600 meters in elevation change with steep slopes. The United Nations International Year of the Mountain (2002) separated mountains into two major categories-mountains extending above 2,500 meters and between 2,500 and 300 meters. Lands that have topographic relief of more than 5 percent within 7 kilometers are also considered mountains.
Mountains are formed in a process known as orogeny of which there are three major activities: island arcs and trenches-along the subduction zones of two oceanic plates; cordilleran-type mountain ranges-along the subduction zones of an ocean and continental plate; and the collisional mountain belts-the convergence and subduction of an arc or another continental plate in contact with the overlaying plate of the subduction zone. In addition, erosion over time creates topographic relief mountains. The island arcs and trenches are both submerged below ocean floors and rise above the ocean in island chains throughout the Pacific, Indonesia, and the Caribbean. The long mountain chains along coastal regions demonstrate the cordilleran-type mountains, best illustrated by the Andean Mountains of South America. The Himalayas are being formed by the collisional-mountain process, the contact of one plate with another. The sedimentary forelands formed on the subduction plate can create a different set of mountains resulting from the folding and faulting of the sedimentary layers. Examples of this type of mountain range are the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains, the Appalachian Mountains, and the Subandean Range in Argentina.
Approximately 24 percent of Earth’s surface area is mountainous. South Asia is covered by almost 54 percent mountains, the other continents by less: North America (36 percent), Europe (25 percent), South America (22 percent), Australia (17 percent), and Africa only 3 percent. There are over 130 recognized mountain ranges worldwide, with peaks of varying elevations. Mount Everest is the highest mountain above sea level (8,848m), while Mauna Kea is the actual highest mountain measured from its base on the ocean floor to its crest above sea level.
Mountain elevation change has a dramatic effect on local, regional, and global climate. Air moving along Earth’s surface is forced upward with mountain contact. As the air climbs the mountain it decreases in temperature at an average rate of 6.5 degrees C per 1,000 meter, the adiabatic rate. Moisture in the atmosphere condenses as it cools and forms clouds and eventually precipitation, rain, or snow. As the air continues over the mountain it contains less moisture and on the descent down the mountain it warms at approximately the same or higher adiabatic rate forming dry, warm winds. The upslope movement of air is on the windward side of the mountain and the downslope movement is on the leeward side. Thus, the mountain will have cooling, wetter conditions on the windward side and drier, warming conditions on the leeward side. The weather station on the windward side of Mount Waialeale is located at 1,569 meters and receives an average of 1,234 centimeters of precipitation; in contrast, the leeward side receives only 50 centimeters. The mountain side (face) is also influenced by its orientation to the sun and its latitude. Sun-facing slopes will be warmer and usually slightly drier than slopes facing away from the sun. Similarly, east-facing slopes will receive the morning sun and be cooler than the west-facing slope.
Mountains are the water towers for the land surface. Because of their orographic effects, mountains are the headwaters of almost all of the major rivers in the world. The Ganges, Indus, Yangtze, and Huang Ho rivers have their headwaters in the Himalayas. The Amazon is fed from the Andes, the Blue Nile from the Ethiopian Highlands, and the Colorado from the Rocky Mountains. Mountain runoff is a function of snow accumulation and precipitation patterns. Changes in stream and river flow will have an impact on the water received in the valley or the delta area of the river drainage. Mountains are the source of over 50 percent of the fresh water humans consume.
Vegetation and wildlife respond to the differences in temperature and precipitation caused by mountain ranges. A zonal pattern occurs with increase or decrease in elevation, however, the pattern is influenced by the windward/leeward side of the mountain, the mountain face aspect, latitude, and continentality (whether it is a coastal or mainland mountain range). Overall, the vegetation in mountain areas is a vertical pattern of the horizontal vegetation change through the latitudes from the equator to the poles. There are five major categories of vegetation: tropical rain forest, temperate deciduous forest, coniferous forest, tundra, and ice and snow.
Correspondingly, there are animal, avian, and insect habitats that associate with each of the different vegetation categories and the multitude of species can be combined to create a species richness index. Research has found that the species richness index decreases with an increase in elevation, similar to the changes identified with an increase in latitude. However, the changes in species richness are amplified in the mountain environment because of the compressed distance to transition from one vegetation zone to another. The Andes are an example of this species richness, with over 45,000 plant species in an area that is only 20 percent of the size of a similar richness in the Amazon forest.
Although 24 percent of the world land base is in mountainous terrain, more than 500 million people (12 percent) live in this region. Though more than 80 percent live below 2,500 meters, human activities extend to the highest reaches of mountains. Major activities on mountains are agriculture, logging, and livestock production. These activities can be found at most elevations; however, agriculture will be limited by growing season length and crop type. Logging will be determined not only by forest type, but also by access to transportation. The timber industry is directly related to a transportation system that can deliver the logs to the mill and to the market.
Two other activities that are also dependent on transportation access are mining and tourism. Because of the orogenic activities that created mountains, they have the potential for a variety of marketable mineral deposits and rock structures, from precious metals to construction materials such as marble, granite, and copper.
Tourism has created a new type of activity that brings over 50 million people to the mountains for passive and activity recreation. Overall, 15-20 percent of the global tourism industry is associated with mountain recreation-hiking, skiing, climbing, and observation. Finally, another form of mountain activity is the spiritual pilgrimage, a combination of religion, spirituality, and tourism. Specific sites have significance to particular religious or cultural groups, for instance Amdo to Tibetans, Kii Mountain to the Japanese, and mountainous Blue Lake in the southern Rocky Mountains for the Taos Pueblo.
The mountain region is a fragile environment and change can have immediate impacts. There are two scales of change that are the most evidentglobal and local. Global climate change is having an immediate effect on snow accumulation, glacial retreat, solar radiation, and runoff. In Glacier National Park, of the 150 glaciers recorded in 1850 there are now only 27 glaciers remaining. Over this time period around the world the temperature has increased .45 degrees C (±.15 degrees C).
In addition, nitrogen in the atmosphere has increased and this has led to a shift in mountain vegetation patterns. At the local scale, devegetation of the hillsides leads to rapid erosion of the slopes. More than 40 percent of the slopes in Nepal have been abandoned by farmers because of the loss of fertility. In Ethiopia, mountain forests covered 75 percent of the land, but deforestation decreased that number to only 4 percent.
In other situations, it is not just deforestation that is destroying the landscape, but rapid development. The desire to visit, the need for comfortable accommodations, and the disposable mentality are taking their toll on the mountains. In South Korea, although the mountains account for only 4 percent of the area, over 30 million visitors come to the mountains for recreation. In the high elevations of the Himalayas the more than 225 lodges need to keep their guests comfortable and over 1,000 tons of firewood are burned daily to keep them warm. New tourism in the Himalayas is also leaving its mark on the landscape in the form of rubbish. It is estimated that over 17 tons of materials are left behind per one kilometer of trails into the mountains.
The increase in the intensity of local mountain activities and the impacts of global climatic change are changing this fragile environment. Through United Nations initiatives, national government policies, and successful local strategies the mountains may be saved for future generations of humankind to experience.
- J.R. Allan, G.W. Knapp, and C. Stadel, Human Impact on Mountains (Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 1988);
- L. Bloom, Geomorphology: A Systematic Analysis of Late Cenozoic Landforms (Waveland Press, 1998);
- N. Brooks et al., Hydrology and the Management of Watersheds (Iowa State University Press, 1997);
- W.R. Christopherson, Geosystems: An Introduction to Physical Geography (Prentice-Hall, 2000);
- H.P. Hall and D.B. Farge, “Modeled Climate-induced Glacier Change in Glacier National Park, 1850-2100,” BioScience (v. 53/2, 2003);
- C. Korner and M. Spehn, eds., Mountain Biodiversity: A Global Assessment (Parthenon Publishing, 2002);
- P.B. Stone, e, The State of the World’s Mountains: A Global Report (Zed Books, 1992).