Today is International Mountain Day. And in flat Denmark, the role of mountains is getting more attention as part of the international climate negotiations. Some prominent mountain-oriented activities at COP 15 include:

  • Bhutan’s campaign to raise awareness about the increasing frequency of glacial lake outburst floods, the alpine equivalent of tsunamis that occur when natural ice dams give way
  • A presentation by Al Gore and a group of Nordic country officials on data showing that snow and ice are changing much faster than anticipated globally
  • A discussion hosted by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization on climate changes’ impact on the world’s mountain regions, especially related to political commitments and opportunities for adaptation
  • World-champion skier Alison Gannett’s completion of a 250-mile, self-supported walking journey, with skis on her back, to discuss what climate change means for skiing

Why do mountains matter? Consider these likely consequences, described in the book Six Degrees: With 3°C of warming, the U.S. Rockies will be virtually snowless. At 4°C, the Alps will lose their ice and look more like the Atlas Mountains of Morocco. At 5°C, at least 90 percent of California’s winter snowpack will disappear, and there will probably be significant migration to northern countries like Canada and Russia.

As the storage tanks of our ice and water, mountains distribute water in rivers to farms and communities, even while providing ecosystem services such as pollination and erosion control from wild plants, across broad regions. If snowpack is significantly reduced, these services will probably be severely diminished.

With climate change, mountains could become dangerous rather than life sustaining. As they unfreeze, once firm building materials like rock and ice give way, resulting in slides and floods. As weather becomes more erratic, snow falls less evenly and temperatures are more extreme, increasing the chances of destructive avalanches. While these natural tipping points are already present and observed regularly in natural annual cycles, evidence points to greater frequency and severity with climate change.

As host to a disproportionate share of the world’s marginalized people, mountains also reflect one of the potential human impacts of climate change. This is easy to see in the great ranges of the Himalaya, Karakoram, Pamir, Tien Shan, and Caucuses, which serve as natural border areas. In these regions, sociopolitical stability is already in a delicate balance, and communities can be particularly vulnerable.

Like low-lying islands and the arctic, mountains are the canaries in the coalmine. But they are more than symbolic. For companies that follow their supply chains far enough, they almost certainly hit mountain regions. This highlights the importance of maximizing the resilience of your company and its partners to climate-induced environmental change, while at the same time doing what you can to stop climate change from worsening.