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An Introduction to Mountains
ALTON C. BYERS, LARRY W. PRICE, and MARTIN F. PRICE
Most people are familiar with the importance of oceans and rainforests (Byers et al. 1999), thanks in part to the dozens of books, documentaries, programs, and Internet sites developed by education and conservation groups over the past two decades. Yet there is at least as strong a case for arguing that mountains are also of critical importance to people in nearly every country of the world (Messerli and Ives 1997; Debarbieux and Price 2008).
For example, all of the world's major rivers have their headwaters in mountains, and more than half of humanity relies on the fresh water that accumulates in mountains for drinking, domestic use, irrigation, hydropower, industry, and transportation (Viviroli et al. 2007; Bandyopadhyay et al. 1997; this volume, Chapter 12). Hydropower from mountain watersheds provides 19 percent of the world's total electricity supply, roughly equivalent to all the electricity generated by alternative methods such as solar, wind, geothermal, and biomass (Schweizer and Preiser 1997; Mountain Agenda 2001). Mountain forests provide millions of people with both timber and non-timber forest products (e.g., mushrooms, medicinal plants) and play vital roles in downstream protection by capturing and storing rainfall and moisture, maintaining water quality, regulating river flow, and reducing erosion and downstream sedimentation (Price and Butt 2000; Price et al. 2011). Because the same geologic forces that have raised mountains have also helped concentrate assemblages of minerals useful to human society, the mines in today's mountains are the major source of the world's strategic nonferrous and precious metals (Fox 1997).
Many mountains are hotspots of biodiversity (Jeník 1997; Körner and Spehn 2002; Spehn et al. 2006; this volume, Chapters 7 and 8). With increasing altitude, changes in temperature, moisture, and soils can create a dense juxtaposition of differing ecological communities, sometimes ranging from dense tropical jungles to glacial ice within a few kilometers: This phenomenon is well illustrated by the six bioclimatic zones of the Makalu region of eastern Nepal that are found between 100 and 8,000 m over a mere 20 horizontal kilometers: Over 3,000 plant species are found within this range, including 25 species of rhododendrons, 50 of primroses, 45 of orchids, and 80 of fodder trees and shrubs (Shrestha 1989). Not only does such biodiversity have intrinsic value; it can also have great economic and health values. For instance, of the 962 species of medicinal plants that occur in the temperate to alpine zones of the Indian Himalaya, 175 are being used by herbal drug companies (Purohit 2002). Many mountains (e.g., Mount Kenya and Kilimanjaro in East Africa; Hedberg 1997) can be thought of as islands of biodiversity that rise above vast plains of human-transformed landscapes below. Mountains are often sanctuaries for plants and animals long since eliminated from these more transformed lowlands, such as the volcanoes of Rwanda and Uganda, where the last of the world's mountain gorillas—now numbering fewer than 300—survive (Weber and Vedder 2001). Many plant and animal species are endemic to mountain regions, having evolved over millennia of isolation to inhabit their specialized environments. Equally, many mountain ranges also function as biological corridors, connecting isolated habitats or protected areas and allowing species to migrate between them (Worboys et al. 2010).
Many of the most important food staples in the world—including potatoes, wheat, corn, and beans—were domesticated in mountains, and mountain peoples long ago developed elaborate agricultural production systems and strategies based on altitudinal and ecological zonation (Grötzbach and Stadel 1997; this volume, Chapter 11). Many other crops that have been cultivated for centuries in the Andes have the potential to supply the increasing need for food as the world's population continues to grow (National Research Council 1989). Mountain people, particularly women, are exceptionally knowledgeable about, and make use of, the many medicinal and food plants found in mountain fields and forests (Daniggelis 1997). Of the hundreds of plants in the mountains of Nepal used for medicinal purposes, more than a hundred are undergoing commercial exploitation that can generate significant income for local people (Karki and Williams 1999; Guangwei 2002).
Biological and cultural diversity are often closely interrelated, and mountains contain an amazing diversity of human cultures and communities. For example, of the 1,054 languages spoken in New Guinea, 738 originate in mountainous regions, which cover only 33 percent of the island (Stepp et al. 2005). The late Anil Agarwal, founder and director of the Centre for Science and Environment in New Delhi, stated that "cultural diversity is not an historical accident. It is the direct outcome of the local people learning to live in harmony with the mountains' extraordinary biological diversity" (Centre for Science and Environment 1991, cited in Denniston 1995: 18). Mountains are also home to many indigenous peoples, the original inhabitants of a place before people of a different ethnic origin arrived—such as the Quechua people of Bolivia, Ecuador, and Peru; Naxi and Yi people of Yunnan Province, China; Batwa pygmies of the Ruhengeri Prefecture, Rwanda; and Rais and Sherpas of the eastern Himalaya and Mount Everest region.
The physical and cultural diversity found in many mountain countries is one of the major draws for world tourism. Tourism is the world's largest and fastest growing industry, and tourism to mountain areas represents a significant portion of this activity (Price et al. 1997; Godde et al. 2000; this volume, Chapter 12). Visitors go to the mountains for adventure, recreation, scenic beauty, solitude, and the opportunity to meet and interact with the people who live there. This large influx of visitors to mountain regions can have positive economic benefits for a community, helping to promote sustainable development and the capacity to balance human needs with the preservation of the environment. However, there is also the potential for negative environmental and cultural consequences, such as the impacts of large numbers of people and pack animals on fragile high-altitude environments (Byers 2005, 2007, 2008, 2009) and the loss of traditional cultural values (von Fürer-Haimendorf 1984; Mountain Forum 1998; Ortner 1999).
In many cultures, mountains have special spiritual, cultural, and sacred significance. Inspirational to most, mountains are held sacred by more than 1 billion people worldwide (Bernbaum 1997; Mathieu 2011; this volume, Chapter 9). As the highest and most impressive features of the landscape, mountains tend to reflect the highest and most central values and beliefs of cultures throughout the world. In the United States, mountain environments such as those found in the Rocky Mountains of the West or the Appalachians of the East enshrine cultural and spiritual values basic to American society, embodying what is interpreted as the original, unsullied spirit of the nation; others are sacred to native American peoples. The Japanese reverence for beauty in nature, an integral part of religious observance, bestows upon Mount Fuji a symbolic meaning for the entire nation. At 6,705 m (22,000 ft), Mount Kailash in Tibet is sacred to over a billion Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, and followers of the Bon religion.
Everyone can agree that every mountain has a summit. But how high should a feature be to be considered a "mountain," and how much of the Earth's surface do mountain areas cover? Such questions have long been discussed by geographers, explorers, mountain people, and mountaineers (Mathieu 2011).
During the 1930s, it became fashionable among members of various U.S. alpine clubs to climb the highest point in each of the continental 48 states. The highest of all was Mount Whitney in California at 4,418 m (14,496 ft); the lowest, Iron Mountain in Florida at 100 m (330 ft) (Sayward 1934). No one would doubt that Whitney is truly a mountain, but there is considerable question about Iron Mountain. Merriam-Webster's (Merriam-Webster 2013) defines a mountain as "a landmass which projects conspicuously above its surroundings and is higher than a hill." By this definition, Iron Mountain may be properly named, but most of us would judge this an exaggeration and regard it as a hill. At the opposite extreme, there is the story of a British climber in the Himalayas who asked his Sherpa guide the names of several of the surrounding 3,500 m (11,500 ft) peaks. The guide shrugged his shoulders, saying that they were just foothills with no name.
The difference between the two extremes is one of conspicuousness. The lesser peaks were lost in the majesty of the high Himalayas, whereas even a small promontory on a plain may be a "mountain" to the local people. Thus, Iron Mountain in Florida or landforms of only slightly larger stature, such as the Watchung Mountains in New Jersey, are important local landmarks to which the name "mountain" apparently seems appropriate even though they may not exceed 150 m (500 ft) in elevation. A similar pattern of place names can be found in South Africa (Browne et al. 2004). Nevertheless, calling a feature a mountain does not make it one.
Roderick Peattie, in his classic Mountain Geography (1936), suggests several subjective criteria for defining mountains: (1) mountains should be impressive, (2) they should enter into the imagination of the people who live within their shadow, and (3) they should have individuality. He cites Mount Fujiyama in Japan and Mount Etna in Italy as examples. Both are snowcapped volcanic cones that dominate the surrounding landscapes, and both have been immortalized in art and literature. They produce very different responses in the minds of the people who live near them, however. Fujiyama is benign and sacred, a symbol of peace and strength. Etna, on the other hand, is a devil, continually sending out boiling lava and fire to destroy farms and villages.
To a large extent, then, a mountain is a mountain because of the part it plays in the popular imagination. It may be hardly more than a hill, but if it has distinct individuality, or plays a symbolic role to the people, it is likely to be rated a mountain by those who live around its base (Peattie 1936). For similar symbolic reasons, mountains can come and go. For instance, the initial explorers who mapped the area around the Gulf of St. Lawrence in the seventeenth century identified the Wotchish Mountains, which presented a barrier to westward travel. As the region became more accessible, these low mountains, with summits just over 500 m, became recognized as just one part of the immense Labrador plateau (Debarbieux 2000).
It is difficult to include such intangibles in a workable definition. A more objective basis for defining mountains is elevation. For instance, a landform must attain at least a certain altitude (e.g., 300 m) to qualify. Although this is an important criterion, by itself it is still insufficient. The Great Plains of North America are over 1,500 m (5,000 ft) high, and the Tibetan Plateau reaches an elevation of 5,000 m (16,500 ft), but neither would generally be classified as mountainous. In Bolivia, the Potosí railway line reaches an elevation of 4,800 m (15,750 ft) near the station of El Condor, high enough to make your nose bleed, but it is situated in fairly level country with only occasional promontories exceeding 5,000 m (16,500 ft) (Troll 1972: 2). By contrast, western Spitsbergen in Norway, situated only a few hundred meters above sea level, has the appearance of a high mountain landscape, with its glaciers, frost debris, and tundra vegetation.
In addition to elevation, an objective definition of mountainous terrain should include local relief, steepness of slope, and the amount of land in slope. Local relief is the elevational distance between the highest and lowest points in an area. Its application depends upon the context in which it is applied. When compiling a global database of mountain protected areas (such as national parks), the United Nations Environmental Programme World Conservation Monitoring Centre, working with the World Conservation Union (IUCN), recognized only those that had at least 1,500 m (5,000 ft) of relief (Thorsell 1997). Several early European geographers believed that for an area to be truly mountainous there should be at least 900 m (3,000 ft) of local relief. If this standard is used, only the major ranges such as the Alps, Pyrenees, Caucasus, Himalayas, Andes, Rockies, Cascades, and Sierra Nevada qualify. Even the Appalachians would fail under this approach. On the other hand, American geographers working in the eastern and midwestern United States have thought that 300 m (1,000 ft) of local relief is sufficient to qualify as mountainous. Various landform classifications have been proposed with specifications ranging between these figures (Hammond 1964).
Local relief by itself is, like elevation, an incomplete measure of mountains. A plateau may display spectacular relief when incised by deep valleys (e.g., the Grand Canyon). Such features are, essentially, inverted mountains, but we are accustomed to looking up at mountains, not down. (On the other hand, if one is at the bottom of the Grand Canyon looking up, the landscape can appear mountainous.) Still, this particular area of high local relief is of relatively limited extent and is surrounded on either side by primarily flat?lying surfaces. An opposite but comparable landscape is that of the Basin and Range Province in the western United States. Most of the area is in plains, but occasional ridges protrude 1,500 m (5,000 ft) above their surroundings. Such landscapes are problematic because they do not fit nicely into the category of either plain or mountain.
Mountains are usually envisaged as being both elevated and dissected landscapes. The land surface is predominantly inclined, and the slopes are steeper than those in lowlands. Although this is true as a generalization, the actual amount of steeply dissected land may be rather limited. Much depends upon geological structure and landscape history. In mountains such as the Alps or Himalayas, steep and serrated landforms are the dominant features; in other regions, these features may be more confined. The southern and middle Rocky Mountains display extensive broad and gentle summit uplands, and similar conditions exist in the Oregon Cascades. It is the young Pleistocene volcanoes sticking above the upland surface that give distinctiveness to the Cascades. The Sierra Nevada of California contains many strongly glaciated and spectacular features, but there are also large upland areas of only moderate relief. Yosemite Valley is carved into this undulating surface, and most of the impressive relief in this region derives from the occurrence of deep valleys rather than from the ruggedness of the upland topography. The world of mountains is basically one of verticality: Although slope angles of 10 to 30 degrees are characteristic, it is the intermittent cliffs, precipices, and ridges that give the impression of great steepness. Nevertheless, the horizontal distances between ridges and valleys, which establish the texture and framework for slope steepness, are just as fundamental to the delineation of mountains as the vertical distances that establish the relief.
Excerpted from Mountain Geography by Martin F. Price, Alton C. Byers, Donald A. Friend, Thomas Kohler, Larry W. Price. Copyright © 2013 Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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