ABOVE 4,000 METERS IN ELEVATION, THE RATE OF WARMING HAS INCREASED BY AN ASTOUNDING 75 PERCENT IN JUST THE PAST 20 YEARS, COMPARED TO AREAS BELOW 2,000 METERS.
Mountain temperatures are increasing more quickly than the global average, at a rate closer to that of the Arctic, and climate researchers are trying to figure out why. They suspect that the accelerated mountain warming is due to an effect documented in the Arctic—loss of albedo. The peaks are losing their shiny white blanket of snow and ice that reflects the sun’s radiation back to space. Instead, darker-colored ground absorbs heat, amplifying the heat-trapping effect of greenhouse gas pollution.
MORE RESEARCH NEEDED
But there’s not quite enough data yet to prove the conventional wisdom of rapid mountain warming, says University of Portsmouth geographer Nick Pepin, who led a 2015 study that tried to assess climate change impacts to mountains on a global scale. Are they really warming as fast as we think?
“I think the overall feeling on this is, probably they are, but we don’t know for sure,” he says. Temperature readings taken between 1,000 and 3,000 meters confirm the trend, but data is sparse from higher elevations. There are very few ground-based weather stations above 3,000 meters and none above 5,000 meters, Pepin says, advocating for an expansion of mountain climate research.