Mount Everest 1921

Although the loss of mountain forests and glacier ice was not on the agenda at the Durban conference on climate change that ended December 11th, advocates are determined it will be on the agenda of the Rio+20 climate talks in June 2012.

“The big story at Durban is that Kyoto (the 1997 climate accord) will not die on January 1st but will go on until 2015,” said Jan Dusik, European regional director for UNEP (UN Environmental Program) which co-hosted The World Mountain Forum in the Swiss ski resort of Verbier. However, Dusik said he regretted that UNEP’s report on glacier and mountain degradation was not part of the Durban agenda.

“Perhaps the image of islands disappearing into the ocean is more dramatic than images of melting glaciers,” he said. “We want the same recognition for the plight of people living in and depending on mountains.”

“We all live downstream,” noted mountaineer and photographer David Breashears of GlacierWorks added. “We all depend on water run-off from glaciers into mountain streams, lakes and rivers.” 

Breashears said his 45 expeditions in the Himalayas and five Everest ascents have convinced him that the loss of mountain forests and glaciers will have worldwide impact if it continues unchecked. “Especially in Asia where the Tibetan plateau provides water for 40% of the world’s population and glacier run-off feeds the rivers flowing into China, India and Pakistan.”

Mount Everest 2007

Asked whether the glacier melt is due to historical cycles or the effect of humans on the environment, Breashears said, “Of course there are natural cycles but we know humans are also having an impact…and we can’t continue to vilify energy companies. They are simply responding to what we’re asking for.”

Another speaker at the Verbier Forum was Jean Bourliaud of the French advocacy group APMM (Association des Populations des Montagnes du Monde). “I’m a Chamonix guide but have done many treks in the Andes where there has been even more mountain and glacier degradation. In the next 40-50 years there will be no more glaciers there. This is an especially severe problem where cities depend on glacier run-off like Santiago de Chile.”

The World Mountain Forum was hosted by UNEP in partnership with the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC). Similar events to mark International Mountain Day (December 11) were held in Canada, Peru and Nepal with the goal of highlighting the social and economic effects of melting glaciers in the world’s four biggest mountain ranges: the Andes, Himalayas, Alps and Rockies.

The Rome-based Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) also held a ceremony (December 12) to mark the day under the theme “Mountain forests – roots to our future.”


(Photos Mount Everest in 1921 and 2007 © George Mallory courtesy of the Royal Geographical Society / David Breashears for GlacierWorks)