Mountain Ecosystems in Danger Worldwide, UN Says

National Geographic News
From Wire Services
February 1, 2002

People have long fled to the mountains in search of fresh air and tranquility. But a "health check-up" of the world's mountains by the United Nations has found that many mountain ranges themselves are in dire need of relief from modern activities that are causing lasting environmental damage.

According to the analysis by the United Nations University in Tokyo, pressures from tourism, development, pollution, deforestation, climate change, and other forces is permanently eroding the landscape of many mountain ranges, with serious implications for society.

Major consequences are likely to include water shortages and increased disasters such as landslides, avalanches, and catastrophic flooding, warns the report, which was written by Jack Ives, a professor of geography and environmental science at Carleton University in Ottawa.

The impacts would be widespread because mountains and highlands cover one quarter of Earth's land surface, are home to 10 percent of the world's population, and provide a primary source of water to half of all people.

The UN report identified mountain ranges around the world where conditions are most troubling. The Himalaya-Karakorum-Hindu Kush range—extending from the borders of Myanmar and China across northern India, Bhutan, Nepal, Pakistan, and Afghanistan—is at the top of the list.

"The most severe examples of environmental and socioeconomic degradation—now near total disaster—are the Hindu Kush in Afghanistan, the Karakorum and western Himalaya, and the disputed territory of Kashmir," said Ives.

Ecological destruction, poverty, and the repression of ethnic minorities, Ives warned, are feeding conflicts in Himalayan countries that threaten to turn the Asian mountain range into "the next Afghanistan."

The European Alps, under intense pressure from two-season tourism and air pollution, also made the list of ecologically endangered areas, along with the Sierra Chincua in central Mexico, the Amber Mountains of Madagascar, Australia's Snowy Mountains, and the Rockies of North America.

Since the early 1970s, logging and agricultural expansion of farmland have destroyed 44 percent of Sierra Chincua, a forest reserve that is the winter home of migrating North American monarch butterflies. Experts say that if the tree loss continues at the present rate, the entire forest will be gone within 50 years.

The United Nations has designated 2002 as the International Year of the Mountains to draw attention to ecological degradation of mountains and promote policies that help protect the critical resources and services they provide.

Downside of Tourism

In North America and Europe, the chief problem is too much tourism, according to the UN report.

Continued on Next Page >>


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