Mountain regions cover about one-quarter of the Earth's land mass and contain complex, often isolated, ecosystems with unique environmental and cultural characteristics. Mountains are focal points of global biological diversity and indicators of global environmental and climatic change. These fragile ecosystems are the source of much of the Earth's freshwater, which is needed for an increasing human population, and are often exploited for minerals, timber, and agricultural resources.
Mountain regions are home to an estimated 1.1 billion people, 90% of whom live in developing countries. Natural disasters and man-induced stress on mountain ecosystems have resulted in poor, even life-threatening, conditions for human communities. Economic development in most of the world's mountain regions remains unacceptably low as abject poverty, political disenfranchisement, isolation, cultural erosion, armed-conflict, food insecurity and other threats afflict many living there. Climate change, deforestation, over-grazing and soil erosion make matters worse. These realities often impede efforts to improve opportunities for mountain dwellers through environmentally sound strategies. Some Examples:
- The Tropical Andes Mountains are known as "the global epicenter of biodiversity." Climate change and human encroachment have reduced this ecosystem to 25% of its original size, resulting in "habitat fragmentation" which weakens species by dividing large, intact habitats into smaller, more vulnerable pockets.
- Increased warming in the Himalayas is accelerating glacier retreat and diminishing summer water runoff needed by the river systems and growing urban areas at the base of the mountains. Glacier destabilization has dramatically increased instances of Glacier Lake Outburst Flooding, or "mountain tsunamis", which threaten downstream communities with sudden, life-threatening flooding.
- In the Appalachians, mountaintop-removal mining is permanently changing the landscape and is causing the destruction of habitat and the burial of river headwaters. The resulting air and water pollution is negatively impacting human health. Local cancer, asthma and birth defects rates are significantly higher than normal.
Mountain problems linked to climate change, specifically glacier retreat, may never be reversed. However, there are areas where localized solutions do exist. In the Andes, species fragmentation is being treated by the establishment of wildlife corridors, which allow for migrations between protected areas, strengthening the species gene pool. Unlike many environmental problems, mountaintop removal mining in the Appalachians can be brought to an immediate halt with public attention and proper legislation.