The WMO High Mountain Summit on 29-31 October 2019 concluded with a Call to Action and a roadmap of priority activities. The priority actions aim to support more sustainable development, disaster risk reduction and climate change adaptation both in high-mountain areas and downstream.
Mountain regions cover about a quarter of the Earth’s land surface. They are important sources of freshwater, centres of biological and cultural diversity as well as traditional knowledge, being home to a quarter of the world’s population. High-mountain areas include all mountain regions where glaciers, snow or permafrost are prominent features of the landscape (IPCC). River basins with headwaters in the mountains supply freshwater to over half of humanity, thus mountains are often referred to as “the water towers” of the world.
However, rising global temperatures are causing changes to mountain meteorology, hydrology, and ecology, including the cryosphere – snow, glaciers, frozen ground. Natural hazards, environmental alterations and the loss of critical mountain ecosystems are increasing the risk of local and downstream disasters. Large mountain regions play a key role in the evolution of large-scale weather systems. The anticipated increase in uncertainty in water availability from mountain rivers is a significant risk factor for local and downstream agriculture, forestry, food production, fisheries, hydropower production, transportation, tourism, recreation, infrastructure, domestic water supply and human health.
The WMO Summit highlighted that – in spite of the above facts – Earth system processes over complex mountain terrain are insufficiently observed and understood to confidently model their behaviour. Consequently, the resulting impacts of those changes on people and economies have not been well-articulated in major international policy frameworks such as the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction or the Paris Agreement on Climate Change. As water security is becoming one of the greatest challenges for humanity, and a source of political tension within and between nations, the absence of such references makes the task of developing and implementing relevant policies much more difficult.
Call for more scientific understanding
The available scientific evidence is very heterogeneous across and within mountain regions. Often, new observations, learning, thinking and experiences are acquired by international research initiatives with limited or no engagement with local scientific or operational communities.
The scientific understanding of social-ecological systems in high mountains needs to be substantially strengthened. In addition, amplified knowledge is needed of the ecosystem services and goods provided by the cryosphere and other critical systems in mountain regions, and their human uses.
Participants at the Summit repeatedly cited the findings of the IPCC Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate, which includes a dedicated chapter on high mountain areas. The IPCC report notes that current trends in cryosphere-related changes in high-mountain ecosystems are expected to continue, and their impacts to intensify. Snow cover, glaciers and permafrost are projected to continue to decline in almost all regions throughout the 21st century. The findings of this report convey a sense of urgency in addressing the hydro-climatic changes in high mountains, their impacts and their downstream effects.
High Mountain Summit Call to Action
Following engaging presentations and inter- and trans-disciplinary dialogues, the Summit participants committed to opening access to and use of ‘fit-for-purpose’ hydrological, meteorological and climate information services for people living in and downstream of mountains. This would help address their need to adapt to and manage the threats caused by unprecedented anthropogenic climate change, recognizing the importance of mountain regions as home of the cryosphere and source of global freshwater.
An Integrated High-mountain Observation, Prediction and Services Initiative was deemed essential to achieve this objective. The Initiative would have user-centred goals, build on existing knowledge and activities, international coordination and multidisciplinary approaches. It would include a series of collective, intensive campaigns of analysis and forecasting demonstration projects in key mountain ranges and headwaters around the world, including those with transboundary foci. The Initiative would make it possible to co-design solutions, build capacity, support and facilitate investments by actively engaging information users, providers and producers to address the most pressing issues of climate, cryospheric and hydrological change. Its results would support the management of water resources and adaptation to the risk of natural hazards downstream of large rivers – thus affecting large segments of the Earth’s human population and ecosystems. It would foster exchanges and interactions between populations, users, science and services, and provide relevant input to policymakers.
Summit co-chairs – Ms Carolina Adler, Executive Director, Mountain Research Initiative, and Mr John Pomeroy, Canada Research Chair in Water Resources and Climate Change, Director, Centre for Hydrology, Global Water Futures Initiative – presented these outcomes at the 2019 United Nations Framework Conference on Climate Change (COP25) in Madrid, in a side events organized on 11 December, the UN International Mountain Day, at. The United Nations General Assembly Resolution A/74/209 on Sustainable Mountain Development, approved on 19 December, recommends that Member States “Develop and implement measures to strengthen the adaptive capacity and climate resilience of mountain communities and to reduce exposure to climate risks through increased generation and use of climate and disaster risk information, development of hazard risk maps and platforms, improvement of early warning systems and application of the risk-based approach in all development planning;” as a mean to build resilience to climate change and disasters and protecting biodiversity.
The way ahead
Integrated mountain prediction systems are needed to comprehensively model scenarios and predict mountain-specific climate, meteorology, hydrology, ecology, human system and cryospheric change in mountain regions, and for mountain-sourced river basins. Additional mountain observations are critical to integrated mountain prediction systems. These in turn will yield more reliable products and information on the changing risks due to climate change. Such information will underpin adaptation strategies to reduce the impacts of and exposure to natural hazards and related disasters.
The translation of the Call to Action into practice requires a consortium of national and international institutions and networks representing policy, practice, scientific research, academia and funding agencies. The Call requires a joint and collective response to support the proposed Integrated High-mountain Observation, Prediction and Services Project and to organize coordinated observation and prediction campaigns, potentially, within the scope of a Year of Mountain Prediction (YMP).
WMO plays an important role in addressing the need identified in the Sendai Framework to “Strengthen technical and scientific capacity to capitalize on and consolidate existing knowledge and to develop and apply methodologies and models to assess disaster risks, vulnerabilities and exposure to all hazards.”
WMO Deputy Secretary-General Elena Manaenkova stated at the conclusion of the Summit, “WMO will provide leadership and guidance in the Integrated High Mountain Observation and Prediction Initiative. We need to improve observations, forecasts and data exchange in mountain ranges and headwaters around the world. This is needed to address accelerating climate change which has increasing impacts on vulnerable populations.”
To do so, WMO appeals to national and international institutions and networks representing policy, practice, scientific research, academia and funding agencies, to join efforts and support the proposed Integrated High-mountain Observation, Prediction and Services Project. Additional resources are needed as well as coordinated observation and prediction campaigns. The 2007 International Polar Year, coordinated by WMO, was a testimony of the its ability to stimulate action in the international community towards the achievement of important scientific goals. The success of such campaigns depends on the strong commitment of leading organizations around the world, which are invited to join WMO in translating into practice the priority actions of the Call to Action.
Sponsors of the High Mountain Summit include the World Bank Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery and Central Asia Water and Energy Program, and Swiss government agencies (MeteoSwiss, the Federal Office of the Environment, Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research WSL, and the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation). The over 150 participants represented academia, the scientific and operational communities, users of hydro-meteorological services, policy-makers, and representatives of the civil society, from 45 countries and several international organizations.
Donors and Partners
Carolina Adler, Mountain Research Initiative (MRI)
John Pomeroy, Global Water Futures programme, Global Institute for Water Security & Centre for Hydrology, University of Saskatchewan, Canada
Rodica Nitu, WMO Secretariat