Mountain Geography: Physical and Human Dimensions

Mountain Geography: Physical and Human Dimensions

Mountain Geography: Physical and Human Dimensions

Mountain Geography: Physical and Human Dimensions


Mountains cover a quarter of the Earth's land surface and a quarter of the global population lives in or adjacent to these areas. The global importance of mountains is recognized particularly because they provide critical resources, such as water, food and wood; contain high levels of biological and cultural diversity; and are often places for tourism and recreation and/or of sacred significance.

This major revision of Larry Price's book Mountains and Man (1981) is both timely and highly appropriate. The past three decades have been a period of remarkable progress in our understanding of mountains from an academic point of view. Of even greater importance is that society at large now realizes that mountains and the people who reside in them are not isolated from the mainstream of world affairs, but are vital if we are to achieve an environmentally sustainable future.

Mountain Geography is a comprehensive resource that gives readers an in-depth understanding of the geographical processes occurring in the world's mountains and the overall impact of these regions on culture and society as a whole. The volume begins with an introduction to how mountains are defined, followed by a comprehensive treatment of their physical geography: origins, climatology, snow and ice, landforms and geomorphic processes, soils, vegetation, and wildlife. The concluding chapters provide an introduction to the human geography of mountains: attitudes toward mountains, people living in mountain regions and their livelihoods and interactions within dynamic environments, the diverse types of mountain agriculture, and the challenges of sustainable mountain development.


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 . . .

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