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Why Mountains Matter

A blog post by Alison Todd

Today, Sunday, 11 December, the United Nations celebrates International Mountain Day and the theme is Women Move Mountains, which is an opportunity to promote gender equality and therefore contribute to improving social justice, livelihoods and resilience”. Alison Todd, our Communications Assistant, shares her relationship to the mountains and why she believes it is so important to protect them from the climate crisis.

I was brought up surrounded by the mountains. Some of my earliest memories are being in the mountains, family time spent doing some form of activity in any weather and at any time of the year. A constant throughout is my dad pointing out every peak in the distance, naming and identifying what I just see as land. There was also talk of the varying snowfall, snowpack and weather fronts which, as a teenager, was definitely met with eye rolls. Now, I understand the complaints and the worry felt by those who choose to live their free time in the mountains. 

Mountain ranges cover a quarter of all the planet’s land, appear on every continent and around half of the world’s biodiversity hotspots are located on mountain ranges. Along with the ocean, they are one of the most common features of the planet. 

Mountains are also home to glaciers. Glaciers provide growing populations with their water supply which is used for energy and agriculture, and some areas of the world depend on them to avoid drought. The Himalayas are home to the third largest ice mass in the world, behind both the Arctic and Antarctic, sustaining “240 million people in their peaks and valleys” and those downstream. Increasing climate temperatures impact glaciers by increasing the rate in which they are melting, causing floods and biodiversity loss.    

Just from these few facts we can sense the importance in protecting our mountain ecosystems. These facts also prove that not only those that live, work or spend their leisure time on the mountains should care for their state, as the impact of their degradation will also be felt miles away.  

Earlier this year I discovered an exhibition at the National Library of Scotland titled ‘Petticoats and Pinnacles: Scotland’s pioneering mountain women’. The exhibition covered how these women had moved attitudes away from disgust and apprehension, gaining approval from their male peers. It provided a means to showcase the stories of women whose voices had been forgotten in history.  

The women this exhibition documented had completed first ascents of peaks in the United States in the late 1800s, founded the Ladies Scottish Climbing Club in early 1900s and completed the first women’s Himalayan expedition in 1955. By challenging stereotypes of what was acceptable, the actions of these pioneering women enabled future generations to take part in these activities. In 1979, Wilhelmina Barns-Graham visited the Grindelwald glacier in Switzerland and walking the frozen land later inspired her to create artwork. The same glacier has now, 70 years later, retreated by a mile and has almost disappeared. In Scotland, the temperature trend of the UK’s highest mountain, Ben Nevis, has steadily increased from 6.4 degrees in 1979 to 7.7 degrees in 2021, and continues to rise. We must now continue to protect and advocate for these spaces to be protected so that they are not just memories exhibited in a museum, but are places we can live, work and spend time on. 

The women highlighted in the exhibition, ground-breaking for their time, were certainly not regular working women. I reflected on this during the exhibition, that these women were privileged enough to choose to use these spaces for leisure purposes and discover the joy and freedom which the mountains provide. But it is not just the privileged that experience mountains - populations have been working and living on mountainous terrain for thousands of years and still rely upon these areas for their subsistence. From agriculture to tourism, people have evolved to continue to live in the mountains. Research shows that it is these populations who are most “vulnerable to the effects of climate change since that will change the services provided by the ecosystems as well as change the impact of disasters”. The UN states that such impacts have led to a forced migration in some areas, where men must find a different way to earn a living. The tasks once undertaken by men are more frequently being completed by the women who remain. It is therefore important to have communities at the forefront of these challenges involved in mitigating the impacts of climate change. 

So how can we protect these places and what actions are already being undertaken? In Scotland, there is currently a project based in the Cairngorms National Park to restore peatland which spans 10,000 acres. The importance of restoring peatland is to reduce flood risk and peat erosion, both cause damage leading to the generation of carbon emissions. The process of restoration includes building dams amongst other methods to rewet boggy areas. The Scottish Government has pledged £250 million for 10 years, aiming for 250,000 hectares of peatland restoration by 2030. The project is working with the local community to come up with solutions and gain knowledge from people who live in the area. 

As a charity, we provide Climate Emergency Training to communities and facilitate workshops to help communities create Community Climate Action Plans, helping people understand the climate crisis and what they can do to tackle it. Community engagement in the climate crisis is crucial in order to demand collective change from decision makers and help communities adapt in ways that suits them. 

In other parts of the world, there are Eco-system based Adaption approaches which help mountain communities adapt to the impacts of climate change. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) state that these programmes “benefit local people directly, as well as millions downstream who depend on the water and other benefits that come from the mountains”. The approach implements traditional knowledge with modern technology to help restore areas which face degradation as an effect of climate change. In each country, the community outreach demographic was around 50% or more for female engagement in the projects. This is proving to be an effective way to create community engagement and protect communities vulnerable to the effects of climate change. 

With tourism as a major source of income in mountain regions, at home and abroad, those of us who are fortunate enough to spend time in the mountains can protect these spaces with small actions. Simple acts like taking your toilet paper home, leaving no trace for those that follow, car sharing and sticking to paths to avoid perpetuating erosion can all make a difference not only to other tourists but those managing the sites. 

The mountains are a place which have provided me with a space to clear my head, challenge myself and experience beautiful places. For me, it is evident why we should protect them not just for myself and  the generations that follow, but also for the animals and plants that call the mountains home. 

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