A “Peak” at the Importance of Mountain Ecosystems

By Bernat Claramunt Lopez

Dr. Bernat Claramunt Lopez is Earthwatch’s lead scientist for the expedition “Wildlife in the Changing Andorran Pyrenees.” Bernat works with volunteer teams to assess the impact of climate change on wildlife in the Pyrenees so as to protect this delicate Alpine environment and the species that inhabit it.

“…The mention of mountains conjures images of hiking and skiing, cows and cheese, fresh air and fresh snow.” This quote, taken from a text written by the Mountain Research Initiative, clearly defines a perspective many people have about mountains. The text continues “However, mountains are more than just a background setting for bucolic farms and family hikes”. What does “more than just” mean hereThe truth is that mountains provide a notable amount of ecosystem services not only for their inhabitants but also for citizens living in the lowland regions, far away from them. These services include tangible goods such as wood or water, but also other services that are more difficult to quantify: biodiversity, peacefulness, and cultural heritage, among others.

VIDEO: Bernat highlights some of the volunteer activities and the importance of Earthwatch citizen scientists in helping to protect this critical ecosystem.

One of the most important services provided by mountains is water. It is common (and correct!) to read that mountains are “water towers” that supply disproportionate amounts of runoff to Europe’s rivers in comparison to lowland areas. Similarly, an important proportion of a regions’ hydro-power, a clean and renewable source of energy, comes from mountains. 

Mountains are also centers of biodiversity. For example, European alpine ecosystems above the tree-line cover only 3% of Europe’s area, but host 20% of its native vascular plant species. Mountains are also key habitats for both large carnivores, such as wolves and bears, and large ungulates (hoofed animals).

In an increasingly urbanized and high-paced world, mountains represent crucial retreats where people can recreate, recharge and re-engage with nature and their own sense of self. Similarly, both tourists and people living outside the mountains enjoy high-quality mountain products—such as cheeses, meats, mineral waters, wines—which are emblematic of local cultures and can provide an important basis for mountain economies.

As with many regions of the world, mountains are experiencing important changes, not only in their physical environment, but also in their social structure. During the last decades, increasing temperatures due to climate change have warmed lakes, rivers and streams; permanent glaciers are melting and disappearing, and runoff and snow cover are dramatically changing. Consequently, water availability, both for humans and for wildlife, is threatened. At the same time, intensification and land abandonment are homogenizing landscapes, increasing the forest area, and reducing the biodiversity of many mountain areas. While agricultural management on economically profitable sites is being intensified, remote areas and those with potentially lower yields are being abandoned.

The Pyrenees are amongst the most important mountain ranges in Europe. Acting as a natural border between France and the Iberian Peninsula, they are part of the Mediterranean basin, and so are exposed to the effects of global change in Mediterranean ecosystems, one of the most threatened globally. Global change models predict an increase of temperatures (especially in the summer and winter) and a light decrease in precipitation—a combination that increases droughts in a region already characterized by drought periods. Moreover, although the amount of precipitation is not likely to change much, the regime will: fewer but more intense rain events will be the rule, not the exception. The effects on agriculture will be noticeable, and we also expect an increased risk of landslides and snow avalanches.

How will wildlife respond to these changes? Are mountain societies adapting to them? The Earthwatch expedition “Wildlife in the Changing Andorran Pyrenees” is an ambitious project that tries to answer these questions. The research includes an intense and complete monitoring of most natural compartments at medium to high elevations. We use different methods to answer these questions, including soil decomposition assessment, surveys of most vertebrate groups (small mammal trapping, camera trapping, and nest boxes), invertebrate biodiversity monitoring, tree growth measurement, surveys of flowering plants living in the snowbeds and of meadows exposed to overgrazing by livestock, and drone flights to monitor the status and health of the alpine vegetation.

One of the most important aspects of the project is the collaboration between the researchers and the volunteers. In particular, we partner with local non-profit organizations and governmental departments whose objectives are to protect or manage the environment. We also collaborate with people who live in this environment, including farmers and tour operators, whose livelihoods are directly impacted by climate change. Volunteers help scientists to gather data during the day, and meet the different stakeholders during afternoon and evening meetings. Together, we identify data-based solutions to cope with global change.

To learn more about the expedition, visit Wildlife in the Andorran Pyrenees page.