Towards mountains without permanent snow and ice

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The cryosphere in mountain regions is rapidly declining, a trend that is expected to accelerate over the next several decades due to anthropogenic climate change. A cascade of effects will result, extending from mountains to lowlands with associated impacts on human livelihood, economy, and ecosystems. With rising air temperatures and increased radiative forcing, glaciers will become smaller and, in some cases, disappear, the area of frozen ground will diminish, the ratio of snow to rainfall will decrease, and the timing and magnitude of both maximum and minimum streamflow will change. These changes will affect erosion rates, sediment, and nutrient flux, and the biogeochemistry of rivers and proglacial lakes, all of which influence water quality, aquatic habitat, and biotic communities. Changes in the length of the growing season will allow low-elevation plants and animals to expand their ranges upward. Slope failures due to thawing alpine permafrost, and outburst floods from glacier- and moraine-dammed lakes will threaten downstream populations. Societies even well beyond the mountains depend on meltwater from glaciers and snow for drinking water supplies, irrigation, mining, hydropower, agriculture, and recreation. Here, we review and, where possible, quantify the impacts of anticipated climate change on the alpine cryosphere, hydrosphere, and biosphere, and consider the implications for adaptation to a future of mountains without permanent snow and ice.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)418-435
JournalEarth's Future
Issue number5
Early online date24 Apr 2017
Publication statusPublished - 18 May 2017


  • impacts of climate change
  • snow and glacier melt
  • future mountain hydrology
  • ecological changes in mountain streams
  • Societal adaptation to glacier change


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