Universität Innsbruck


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Nar-Phu valley, Nepal

The deep prehistory of the human presence in the world's mountains and plateaus

by Mark Aldenderfer

Our ancestors—and ourselves-- have always lived within the shadow of mountains. The story of our enduring relationship with the mountains and plateaus of the world begins perhaps more than one million years ago at the margins of the Rift Valley in Ethiopia. At a series of archaeological sites at elevations ranging from 2000-2400 m, our hominid ancestors obtained obsidian from outcrops and most likely foraged for food. Although these sites are not in mountainous terrain per se, they are found on the Ethiopian plateau and thus offer the first evidence of our ancestor’s use of high elevation environments. Over the next million years, as our ancestors moved out of Africa into new habitats, they found both challenges and refuges in the mountain ranges they encountered. Homo antecessor, Neanderthals, and Denisovans explored and exploited many of the foothills and margins of mountains and plateaus below 3000m but it was only with the advent of Homo sapiens sapiens—us—that the highest plateaus and mountains on the planet were systematically entered and explored. This movement into these high places came late in our evolutionary past—certainly within the past 40,000 years. To successfully live at elevations beyond 3000m, our species required both behavioral as well as genetic adaptations to live in these places permanently. Things we take for granted—fire and clothing—were critical to these adaptations.

In this keynote, I examine the biological, genetic, and archaeological evidence that provides a context for understanding how some of us became highlanders from our lowland origins.



Lowland inhabitants depend increasingly on mountain water resources:
A global view from mid-20th to mid-21st century

by Daniel Viviroli

Mountain areas are ‘Water Towers’ for the world and often provide disproportionally high runoff to the subjacent lowlands. This effect is especially marked in dryer climates where mountains are critically important for downstream water resources. The extent to which lowlands actually depend on mountain water resources has not been quantified so far, however. We therefore adopt a lowland perspective and examine the potential dependence on mountain water resources world-wide.

Looking at results from high-resolution global hydrological modelling and spanning a timeframe from 1961–2050, we can study the changing conditions of both runoff and water consumption over time. Analyses reveal that the number of lowland inhabitants critically depending on mountain water resources rises from ~0.2 billion (8% of world’s lowland population) in the 1960s to ~1.4 B (23%) in the 2040s under a ‘middle of the road’ scenario, mainly due to increasing local water consumption in the lowlands. Important hot-spot regions are not only found around High Mountain Asia, but also in North America, Africa and the Middle East. We further find that one third of global lowland area equipped for irrigation is currently located in regions that both depend heavily on runoff contributions from mountains and make unsustainable use of local blue water resources. This figure is likely to rise to well over 50% in the coming decades and highlights the importance of mountains not only for water resources but also for food security.



Integrated Research on Disaster Risk: challenges and opportunities for the future of mountains

by Irasema Alcántara Ayala

Mountains are complex systems both in terms of the dynamic of the planet and the changes sculpted by societies through time. Physical phenomena as the expression of the genesis and evolution of mountain landscapes are transformed into natural hazards when potentially can affect people. However, it is the transformation of the environment what gives rise to the dimensions of vulnerability and the configuration of exposure, which turns into disaster risk when combined with hazards. As such, disaster risk takes place on the rim of socio-environmental processes under specific territorial contexts in time and space, and disasters are the expression or materialization of existing risk conditions in society.

Scientific challenges and needs of societies, such as those related to disaster risk reduction, have led to transformations from mono-disciplinary perspectives, into multidisciplinary, interdisciplinary, and transdisciplinary approaches. Integrated disaster risk research has moved beyond scientific boundaries not only to understand the ingredients of risk and disaster causality and dynamics, but to manage disaster risk by working together with diverse stakeholders, in the co-production of knowledge and practice.

As integrated research on disaster risk should be carried out therefore within an overarching framework that involves multiple responsibilities, commitments and different spatial-temporal scales, challenges and opportunities for the future of mountains should be directed towards enlightening decision, policy-making and practice, for societal benefit and territorial sustainability.




Mapping the growing overtourism sentiment in Europe: what residents tell us

by Olivier Henry-Biabaud

Overtourism and its related effects continues to rattle the travel and tourism industry, causing uncertainties and potential tensions amongst destination stakeholders, visitors, and residents.  While the mountain destinations have been relatively spared from the anti-tourism syndrom until now, it must however face anticipated risks from overtourism and associated sustainability issues.

 Based on a first of its kind global Resident Survey (Resident Sentiment Index), the UNWTO-endorsed Research Agency TCI Research has scrutinized sentiment on tourism development among 10 000+ resident across European and US touristy destinations. Between media noise and reality, TCI Research dispels seven stereotypes commonly heard about the overtourism impact and its roots, giving data-based evidence of what to do and not do for mountain resorts and DMOs by learning from past mistakes.



Alpine biota under environmental change

by Christian Körner

Global change is more than climatic warming. It includes changes in atmospheric chemistry, precipitation and snow pack, and a multitude of land use changes. In this presentation I will touch upon several of these changes. By intercepting atmospheric circulation and through the forces of gravity, the impact of mountains teleconnects to the forelands, affecting the wellbeing of about half of mankind, while hosting 0.5 billion inhabitants. Life in mountains is driven by elevationally declining temperatures, often paralleled by region-specific changes in precipitation. While these climatic gradients were never stable, life in mountains has been more resilient than one might expect because of topographic diversity and a great buffering capacity of the dominant plant cover, either by long life (trees) and or by the clonal life strategy of plants above treeline. The mosaics of habitat types safeguard an exceptional biological diversity which causes mountains to represent hot spots of biodiversity. Short distance environmental gradients, engraved into the mountain landscape, also represent models for future changes in land cover.  In a warming climate, alpine biota will gain space by retreating glaciers and upslope expansion, but they will lose space by the inevitable advance of treeline. These shifts have so far been evidenced for alpine biota, plants in particular, while the treeline shift lags behind. Once the new treelines will be in phase with climatic warming, the alpine biota will have undergone a net loss in area globally. Whether this will incur a loss of alpine species depends on the elevation of a mountain range and soil conditions. The most endangered biota in mountains are those that undergo land use changes.


Mountain agriculture in the bioeconomy

by Hilde Björkhaug

Bioeconomy has been launched as one of the answers to the major societal challenges facing the world; scarcity of biological resources, deterioration of the natural environment and climate change and the subsequent challenges this has for economic development and for human health and well-being. There is a broad agreement that these challenges cannot be solved by individual actors or sectors alone. They require cooperation and coordinated planning and implementation, and it requires consensus on the visions and goals of the community's bioeconomists.

Bioeconomy is a social economy based on income and production of welfare that comes from the transformation of (renewable) biological resources into energy, food and health, fiber and industrial products, unlike the fossil-based oil economy. The bioeconomists’ are those actors who want to contribute to the transition to the bioeconomy society. The concept of a bioeconomy has become a guiding principle in agricultural policies EU and beyond. Despite the optimism the bioeconomy offers, the development of a bioeconomy is not without its challenges. EU perspectives of the bioeconomy has attracted at least two contending visions for the future. The conventional and dominant view is one where life-science based technological solutions (such as energy crops) provide a common thread to address the problems facing mankind, thus moving the focus away from social causes towards possible technologically oriented solutions Other visions, however, suggests that a sustainable bioeconomy (or “eco-economy” according to Kitchen & Marsden, 2011) can only be achieved via a recalibration of practices that potentially can realign production–consumption chains and capture local and regional value between rural and urban spaces. The existence of contrasting perspectives opens for discussing pluralistic pathways and opportunities within the bioeconomy within and across different spaces and communities.

This key note elaborates on the challenges and opportunities for sustainable agriculture in different operationalisations of the bio-economy. Special attention is put on the potential for mountain agriculture in the bioeconomy.


Weather and Climate Modeling in the Alps: From the Early Beginnings to Climate Change

by Christoph Schär

The fascinating Alpine weather has always attracted much attention and many early studies are testimony to its role in fostering the field of mountain meteorology. Alpine topography influences the weather and climate by deflecting the atmospheric flow horizontally and vertically, by introducing elevated sources and sinks of heat and moisture, by modifying the water cycle, and by inducing waves that propagate deeply into the free atmosphere. The Alpine topography is also essential in inducing extreme climatic conditions at high elevations, and by triggering extreme events such as flash floods and wind storms.

In addition to observations and theory, numerical models of weather and climate processes have increasingly played an important role in the investigation of the underlying phenomena. Early research has attempted to better understand and forecast critical meteorological conditions such as Alpine föhn, lee cyclogenesis and heavy precipitation events. In the last decades, the challenge is increasingly to understand and project the impacts of anthropogenic climate change on Alpine weather and climate. The range of Alpine climates that needs to be considered is tremendous and covers almost that of the whole European continent, but within a horizontal range of less than 1000 km. Particular attention will be devoted to the role of climate models in projecting anthropogenic effects on Alpine snow cover and heavy precipitation events. These factors are essential for the Alpine environment, its hydrological cycle, and extreme events relating to avalanches, flash floods and mudslides.

The significance of continuous comprehensive observations: From atmospheric clustering via feedback loops to global climate and air quality

by Markku Kulmala

The atmosphere forms a major part of the environment to which life on Earth is sensitively responsive. The atmosphere closely interacts with the biosphere, hydrosphere, cryosphere and lithosphere as well as with urban surfaces on time scales from seconds to millennia. Changes in one of these components are directly or indirectly communicated to the others via intricately-linked processes and feedbacks resulting in local, regional and global scale effects on climate and air quality, as well as for water and food supply. Human and societal actions, such as emissions-control policies, urbanization, forest management and land-use change, as well as various natural feedback mechanisms involving the biosphere and atmosphere, have substantial impacts. To be able to meet challenges related to our Earth system we need to have enough deep understanding including proper comprehensive observational data.

 Unfortunately, currently the observations are typically fragmented into 1) greenhouse gases; 2) aerosols; 3) air quality; 4) trace gases; 5) ecosystems; 6) climate; 7) ... And the different scientific communities typically do not collaborate or even communicate with each other - although these kind of barriers do not exist in nature. However, in order to produce reliable data and in-depth understanding we need integrated approach to be able to answer global grand challenges like climate change, air quality, water and food supply. The integrated approach is also effective in impact and economy point of view. Therefore, we have developed a SMEAR (Stations for Measuring Earth surface Atmosphere relations) concept.

 During the past ten years, the SMEAR II station (in Hyytiälä, Finland) has contributed to several Pan-European research infrastructure that are currently in the ESFRI Roadmap, such as ICOS (Integrated Carbon Observation System), ACTRIS (Aerosols, Clouds, and Trace gases Research Infrastructure), AnaEE (Infrastructure for Analysis and Experimentation on Ecosystems), and eLTER (Integrated European Long-term Ecosystem critical zone and socio-ecological system Research Infrastructure). SMEAR has provided high-quality data, trans-national access, and contributed to the development of advanced technologies in many research fields. Due to its comprehensive concept, SMEAR is capable for providing data also to several global Earth Observation systems and networks, such as to WMO GAW, GEO-GEOSS, FluxNet, AERONET and SolRad-Net.

 There are several benefits that can be gained (and has been already obtained) by the integration of scientific domains and co-location of diversity of methodologies and measurements (comprehensiveness). The most important impact of the integration and co-location is on the scientific results like quantification of feedback loops, understanding biogeochemical cycles (including water and carbon cycles) in details, understanding gas-to-particle conversion in quantified way and understanding interlinks of several processes. Actually it seems that the key in very many feedback loops and in biogeochemical cycles is what happened in molecular and cluster level (size range < 1nm – 3nm).

 The information from different environments all around the globe is crucial besides scientists and scientific communities also for policymakers and other stakeholders. There are also side benefits like the same staff can be utilized with several infrastructures simultaneously due to co-location. On the other hand also the scale and opportunities for training new generation of scientists to use big data provided by SMEAR stations is important.

 Using SMEAR concept globally enables us to perform global feedback loop analysis, find out new interactions, feedbacks and processes and collect new big data for future use to answer questions, which we even cannot foresee yet.


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