Environmental Science Mountain Environments
Ellen Wohl
  • LAST REVIEWED: 07 July 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 March 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199363445-0094


Mountain ranges occur on every continent, at latitudes from the equator almost to both poles. A region is defined as mountainous if elevation varies by at least 984 feet over a radius of 4.34 miles. Using this internationally agreed-upon definition, mountains cover 24 percent of Earth’s land surface. As of 2003, 12 percent of the world’s population lives in mountains and another 14 percent live nearby. As reviewed in Martin Price’s highly readable introduction to mountains, parts or all of the eight locations in the world that were original centers for the domestication of plants are mountainous. These areas—along the Andes, around the Mediterranean, Central America, the Middle East, Ethiopia, central Southeast Asia, China, and India—were also sites where many animals were first domesticated. Mountainous regions continue to supply vital natural resources, including minerals, timber, and water, and are culturally important in the context of religion and recreation. Environmental issues associated with mountains include those related to changing climate, population growth and subsistence use of resources, commercial resource use, habitat fragmentation and disconnectivity, and natural hazards. Changing climate is of particular concern in mountainous regions for at least four reasons. First, atmospheric warming is occurring most rapidly at high latitudes and high altitudes, and this warming is significantly affecting the characteristics of persistent ice (glaciers, permafrost) and seasonal snowpacks. Second, in many parts of the world, mountainous regions are disproportionately important in supplying water to adjacent lowlands during warm, dry periods of the year, and changing climate is altering this water-supply function of mountains. Third, changing climate creates specific hazards for biotic communities because cold-tolerant or snow-dependent organisms may not be able to migrate to higher altitudes as climate warms or to migrate between high-altitude refugia in a manner that sustains genetic diversity. Finally, changing climate increases natural hazards associated with slope failures as glaciers retreat and permafrost degrades. Environmental issues around population growth and subsistence use of resources are not unique to mountains but are of great concern to human communities beyond the mountains because of the importance of mountains in supplying resources such as water to adjacent lowlands. Commercial resource use is of concern both to natural and human communities in mountains and human communities in adjacent lowlands, again because of resource subsidies such as streamflow from mountains to lowlands. This article starts with works related to the distinctive physical, ecological, and cultural characteristics of mountains and then focuses on the environmental issues specific to mountains.

General Overviews

Price 2015 provides a concise but comprehensive introduction to various physical, ecological, and cultural aspects of mountainous regions around the world. This is the broadest general overview on mountains as a distinct type of landscape or ecosystem.

  • Price, M. F. 2015. Mountains: A very short introduction. Very Short Introductions 444. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1093/actrade/9780199695881.001.0001

    Comprehensive and readable introduction to the physical and human geography of the world’s mountainous regions; includes discussions of hydrology, biodiversity, human communities, and climate change. An excellent starting point for learning about the unique characteristics of mountains and the diversity among specific mountain ranges.

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