Mountains and oceans: sustaining life on earth
By Sunita Chaudhary
Since 1993, the International Day for Biological Diversity has been observed on 22 May to bring attention to the conservation of biodiversity, its sustainable use, and the fair and equitable sharing of the benefits that come from the utilization of genetic resources. This year, the conservation community’s decision to focus on marine biodiversity as a theme for the day has given me an opportunity to reflect on the inherent, yet often overlooked, bond between mountains and oceans.
An anonymous author once said that mountains and oceans together make the earth. Neither can conquer, nor exist in isolation from, the other. Mountains encompass spectacular landscapes and are host to a great diversity of species, a wide variety of terrestrial ecosystems, and distinctive human communities. Oceans cover 70 percent of the planet’s surface area with diverse habitats, are inhabited by a variety of creatures, and are among the last sources of wild food on the planet. Binding these two unique biomes together is the water cycle, providing the platform for life on earth.
Though in some cases, like in the Himalayas, they can seem worlds apart, mountains and oceans are inherently interconnected. Rivers in particular—flowing from sources thousands of metres above sea level, through various ecosystems and agricultural plains, to deltas and estuaries before joining the ocean—explicitly connect the two, creating lifelines that provide food, water, transportation, and recreation along the way. Another simple illustration of this connection is the annual path of migratory birds that brave a course from the mountains to the ocean and back each year in order to breed and survive. Their epic flights draw a clear line connecting mountains and oceans, making us realize the importance of protecting both entities to sustain life on earth.
Mountains and oceans both provide important services that keep the world livable. While the ice stored at the peaks of the world’s mountains play a critical role in regulating the global climate, ocean life produces a third of the oxygen that we breathe, which is also critical in moderating global climatic changes. Regarded as water towers of the world, mountains fulfil the freshwater needs of more than half of humanity. Likewise, oceans offer a valuable source of food, providing nutrition to more than 2.6 billion people.
When talking about the interconnected nature of ecosystems from the apex of the highest mountain to the depths of the deepest ocean, upstream and downstream linkages cannot go unmentioned. These ecological linkages are exemplified in the circulation of nutrients sourced upstream, such as nitrogen, phosphorus and silicon, which are filtered through rivers or other channels to ensure a healthy and productive marine ecosystem downstream. Similarly, it is important to reiterate the hydrological links between water systems—between mountains and oceans, and upstream and downstream—which provide ecosystem goods and services to humanity. For example, the uplift of the Himalayas and the Tibetan Plateau is thought to significantly affect the Indian monsoon system. The monsoon, in turn, can determine major changes in the flora, fauna, and productivity of lands upstream as well as downstream. We should therefore think of the impact that actions taken upstream will have downstream, extending all the way to the ocean. It is extremely important to take actions wisely in order to sustain ecosystem goods and services for the benefit of all.
Born in the shadows of the Himalayas in Nepal, I have been fascinated by the beauty of the mountains since my childhood. After I was taught the connection between oceans and mountains in Grade 5, I longed to see and feel the ocean for myself. Studying in Hawaii, USA for my higher education gave me a chance to live close to the ocean and to learn firsthand about its importance and the diversity it contains. It was breathtaking to see the ubiquitous coral reefs filled with a rainbow of colorful fish, dolphins, and giant whales breaching the white-capped waves, and the blue sea embracing the red sun. But along with this blissful feeling, I was struck by the threats posed by anthropogenic activities, including the possible impacts of climate change.
Both mountains and oceans are highly vulnerable to climate change. Conserving and sustainably managing the biodiversity of both is critical to address global threats, maintain the flow of ecosystem services, and ultimately sustain life on Earth. The diverse ecosystems and services provided by mountains and oceans further contribute to climate change mitigation, adaptation, and sustainable development. It is therefore imperative to raise awareness on the importance and functional connection between mountains and oceans. Let us join our hands for conservation, management, and the sustainable use of biodiversity by taking into consideration the four Ds—defining our objectives and setting targets, delivering sound technologies for the desired results on the ground, disseminating positive impacts to the world, and deliberating outcomes wisely—and the three Cs—communicating our ideas, consulting for appropriate actions, and collaborating for effective outcomes.
Happy International Day for Biological Diversity 2012!
Sunita Chaudhary is a research associate in biodiversity conservation and management at the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), Kathmandu, Nepal.