08/02/2013 12:38 EDT | Updated 10/02/2013 05:12 EDT

Why Mountains Are the Key to the World's Water

Just before the floods in Toronto, President Jeff Melanson of Banff Center sent an email to all on the mailing list expressing heartfelt thanks for the help received during the devastating flooding in Banff. Nowadays risk management of extreme weather and coping with natural disasters are a key focus in global mountain studies and at mountain conferences around the world. This flooding raises the question of what's happened to Canada's national and international contribution to mountain research? The formerly internationally renowned North American Mountain Forum at Banff hasn't functioned as a mountain studies centre for four years. The floods east and west bring home the need to create another North American Mountain Forum, as a hub for Canada to link to the Global Mountain Forum.

But why are mountains important?

Today, we either have a dearth or a deluge of water. You have too much and it destroys your home or not enough and there is desertification. We all know climate change means more extreme weather and greater disparities between regions. We have had a wet summer, but about 75 per cent of emerging economies in the Asia-Pacific region suffer from low levels of water security. The Asian Water Development Outlook 2013 showed that out of the 49 countries surveyed, 37 are facing serious water crises. This is one example of many.

Mountains are perceived as water towers, providing fresh water to at least half of the world's people and being storehouses for global bio-diversity. As drinking water scarcity becomes an international issue, so too will mountains rise on government agendas. By providing fresh water, biodiversity conservation and hydropower to more than half of humanity, the UN considers that mountains are essential building blocks for long-term sustainable global development.

Climate change models are obviously important to help us understand severe weather and risk management of natural disasters. The Mountain Research Initiative convened a one day workshop of its Global Commission in London following the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme's "Planet Under Pressure" conference in 2012, to discuss the most important research themes for mountains in the immediate future. A key priority is to tackle the lack of climate warming data from high elevations. High elevations are very poorly represented in global climate warming monitoring. The impact assessments of climate warming may be strongly biased if the rate of warming at high elevations is not included in analysis. How can we hope to rely on climate change models and prioritize budgets accordingly if we are often excluding the extreme change which mountains indicate?

In 2002 Canada was firmly placed on the global mountain map with the opening of the North American Mountain Forum. The centre has been inactive in terms of research for four years. These disastrous floods may awaken an interest across Canada to join together to create a new national mountain research centre, so Canada can make a sustained contribution to improving mountain research, and extreme weather management studies.

Mountains cover 25 per cent of the earth's surface. Canada has more than a fair share of them. The floods highlight the responsibility Canada has as a comparatively wealthy country, abounding in mountains, to contribute to mountain research as part of its role in fostering global sustainability now.

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