"Is it too late?" a Swedish reporter asked plaintively at this afternoon's session on the world's retreating glaciers. The speakers, three of the world's experts on the problem, chuckled nervously, although some in the room couldn't hear the question. So Tim Radford, AAAS's affable British emcee for the press conferences, tried to reconvey the question. "When are we doomed" he said to big laughs.
For most in the room, western reporters who likely live thousands of kilometers from glaciers, the question might have seemed alarmist. But for the millions of people in the world who rely on alpine ecosystems for water, food, shelter, and livelihood, vanishing glaciers have profound and uncertain impacts.
Scientist trying to measure and predict how melting glaciers will impact the world are having trouble keeping up with their disappearing subjects. But that hasn't stopped mountain climbers from launching a new effort to help those who face what in many cases is a literal flood of consequences ...
(Photo: Lonnie Thompson, Ohio State University)
John All, a 1.96-meter-tall geoinformatics expert who studies high-altitude regions and climbs them in his free time, was on hand to explain. The American Alpine Club, a climbing organization, along with the Mountain Institute, a Washington, D.C., science and grant-making group, recently launched a 10-year project to help mountainous regions affected by rising global temperatures.
The pair has seen some success in previous efforts to help protect the environment around Mt. Everest in Nepal. There, 3 years ago, the two groups launched an effort to help local populations adapt to a rapidly changing climate. That push has established a kerosene fuel center to encourage families not to burn woodlands, saving roughly 80,000 kg of juniper shrubs. New high-altitude nurseries have helped grow new saplings to regrow hillside plants, and protected, grazing-free zones have encouraged faster regrowth. "The idea is to build resiliance into local ecosystems," says All.
Now, with a $150,000 grant from the Argosy Foundation of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, the groups want to extend the efforts to the Andes, Russia, and even the North American mountains. They're calling it the Alpine Conservation Partnership. All admits the initial money is not enough to make a huge impact. But he thinks the seed money could be leveraged by local mountain climbers in various ranges, who he's confident will pitch in and help out. "The idea is to bring in new partners as we grow the project."
For All, the problems of melting glaciers have had profound impacts on his life as a mountain climber and helped shape his scientific interest in alpine ecosystems. That's because avalanches, more prevalent as the world's mountain ice has rapidly thawed, have claimed the lives of a number of climbers in recent years. "As a climber, knowing people or friends of friends who have died ... changes the way you approach what you're passionate about."