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date: 22 April 2019

The Human Ecology of Disaster Risk in Cold Mountainous Regions

Summary and Keywords

A range of environmental and social dimensions of disasters occur in or are affected by the mountain cryosphere (MC). Core areas have glaciers and permafrost, intensive freeze-thaw, and seasonally abundant melt waters. A variety of cryospheric hazards is involved, their dangers magnified by steep, high, and rugged terrain. Some unique threats are snow or ice avalanches and glacial lake outburst floods. These highlight the classic alpine zones, but cryospheric hazards occur in more extensive parts of mountain ecosystems, affecting greater populations and more varied settings. Recently, habitat threats have become identified with global climate warming: receding glaciers, declining snowfall, and degrading permafrost. Particularly dangerous prospects arise with changing hazards in the populous mid-latitude and tropical high mountains. Six modern calamities briefly introduce the kinds of dangers and human contexts engaged. Disaster style and scope differs between events confined to the MC, others in which it is only a part or is a source of dangerous processes that descend into surrounding lowlands. The MC is also affected by non-cryospheric hazards, notably earthquake and volcanism. In human terms, the MC shares many disaster risk issues with other regions. Economy and land use, poverty or gender, for instance, are critical aspects of exposure and protections, or lack of them. This situates disaster risk within human ecological and adaptive relations to the predicaments of cold and steepland terrain. A great diversity of habitats and cultures is recognized. “Verticality” offers a unifying theme; characterizing the MC through ways in which life forms, ecosystems, and human settlement adjust to altitudinal zones, to upslope transitions, and the downslope cascades of moisture and geomorphic processes. These also give special importance to multi-hazard chains and long-runout processes including floods. Traditional mountain cultures exploit proximity and seasonality of different resources in the vertical, and avoidance of steepland dangers. This underscores sustainability and changing risk for the many surviving agro-pastoral and village economies and the special predicaments of indigenous cultures. Certain common stereotypes, such as remoteness or fragility of mountain habitats, require caution. They tend to overemphasize environmental determinism and underestimate social factors. Nor should they lead to neglect of wealthier, modernized areas, which also benefit most from geophysical research, dedicated agencies, and expert systems. However, modern developments now affect nearly all MC regions, bringing expanding dangers as well as benefits. Threats related to road networks are discussed, from mining and other large-scale resource extraction. Disaster losses and responses are also being rapidly transformed by urbanization. More broadly, highland–lowland relations can uniquely affect disaster risk, as do transboundary issues and initiatives in the mountains stemming from metropolitan centers. Anthropogenic climate warming generates dangers for mountain peoples but originates mainly from lowland activities. The extent of armed conflict affecting the MC is exceptional. Conflicts affect all aspects of human security. In the mountains as most other places, disaster risk reduction (DRR) policies have tended to favor emergency response. A human ecological approach emphasizes the need to pursue avoidance strategies, precautionary and capacity-building measures. Fundamental humanitarian concerns are essential in such an approach, and point to the importance of good governance and ethics.

Keywords: cryospheric hazards, environmental disasters, verticality, hazard chains, social vulnerability, indigenous mountain peoples, gender, modernization and risk, climate change, precautionary and preventive measures


This article concerns disasters in or affected by the mountain cryosphere (MC). Core areas have glaciers and permafrost, frequent and intensive freeze-thaw, and seasonally abundant melt waters. Relatively steep, high-relief terrain magnifies dangers from cryospheric hazards and generates some distinctive threats such as glacial lake outburst floods (GLOFs) and snow or ice avalanches (Kääb et al., 2005). The MC shares with cold areas of low relief dangers such as blizzard, snow loads and drifting, frost-heaved soils, and lake and river ice. In mid- and low latitudes, these are confined to mountainous areas.

The MC includes seasonally snow-free and thawed areas as well as permanently frozen ones. Some polar mountains only have the latter, some mid- and low-latitude mountains just the former. The elevations where cryospheric conditions are found vary with latitude, mountain morphology, and climatic regimes. Amounts of solid precipitation and their seasonal variations are critical but moderated by rugged terrain, biome, and anthropogenic factors. While the polar cryosphere, its ice sheets, permafrost, and frozen seas exert major influences in global climate and sea level, and reflect them, the MC is more critical for the populous mid-latitudes and tropics. Recently, it has become identified with ice loss and dangers attributed to global warming (Beniston, 2000). Of particular concern are receding glaciers, declining snowfall or degrading permafrost, increased flooding and droughts, and contributions to sea level rise (Haeberli & Dedieu, 2004; Huggel et al., 2010). A scientific consensus predicts ongoing decline of the cryosphere (Huggel, Carey, Clague, & Kääb, 2015; Orlove, 2009). More extreme projections have the MC disappearing from most or all mountain regions over the next century or so—unless large reductions in anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions occur quickly (IPCC, 2014).

There is no lack of overviews and comprehensive discussions of the cryosphere and its hazards (Barry & Gan, 1999; Bonardi, 2008; Clague, 2013; Whiteman, 2011). They raise some unique issues for geophysical research and applications, as would the loss of the MC. However, mountains, the cryosphere, and its hazards are identified from physical conditions. For risk and disaster, social conditions are of at least equal importance.

In the MC a great diversity of human cultures is found. Numbers are negatively correlated with duration of snow and frozen conditions, except where winter sports and recreation flourish. Most resident populations and activities are in seasonally thawed areas, where some hundreds of millions have contact with cryospheric conditions. They range from more or less traditional settlements and indigenous subsistence economies to modern infrastructure projects and international tourist resorts. Many societies still depend substantially on traditional economic and cultural forms. Most also face ever-greater pressures to modernize or make way for new developments. In recent decades tens of millions have done so.

Surveys are incomplete, but it seems likely the MC shares in the global trend of increasing numbers of disasters and material losses (EM-DAT, 2013; Laframboise & Loko, 2012). The trend is largely associated with human activity. It involves greater concentrations of vulnerable people in dangerous situations; developments that increase vulnerability by gender, class, (un)employment, ethnicity, religion, economic sector, and country; and multiplying risks and losses associated with social upheavals, urbanization, militarization, habitat damage, and armed conflict—and, not least, anthropogenic climate change (Anderson, 2005; Bankoff, Frerks, & Hilhorst, 2004; Hewitt, 2007, 2016; Hilhorst, 2013). The material presented here suggests a similar picture for disaster risk in the MC.

However, entrenched notions of cold mountains raise special challenges. Also, it seems fair to say the agent-specific view prevails in cryosphere studies (Tufnel, 1984; Whiteman, 2011). This treats environmental disasters as not just initiated by natural hazards but also largely explained by them. Cryosphere studies mainly concern geophysical conditions. Investigations of glaciers, avalanches, permafrost, and periglacial phenomena are highly specialized fields. Research into anthropogenic climate change concentrates on atmospheric systems and extremes, melting permafrost, or glacier retreat. These are important fields, but, with respect to disasters, they tend to reinforce an agent-specific view, or “hazards paradigm” (Gilbert, 1998). The preoccupation is with destructive forces rather than who and what are at risk; with extreme events and emergency measures, rather than longer-term adaptive contexts, precautionary and preventive measures (Hewitt, 2012).

In the disasters field itself an emerging international consensus urges a more “people-centred, preventive” view (Table 1). How this could affect understanding and responses in the MC is the present concern. The value of geophysical and agent-specific studies is not in doubt. The main question is how to situate them in relation to peoples and environments at risk (Wisner, Gaillard, & Kellman, 2012). A human ecological view is adopted here, looking at social life in terms of adaptive relations to habitat. Disaster loss reduction as seen as pivotal to sustainability goals for the mountain biosphere (Price, 2006; Sene & McGuire, 1997; UNESCO MAB, 1974).

Table l. Internationally Advocated and Adopted Views of Disaster Risk Reduction Whose Relevance to the MC Provides the Framework for the Article (Emphasis Added)

There has to be a broader and a more people-centred preventive approach to disaster risk … (UN/ISDR, 2015, p. 4).

More dedicated action needs to be focused on tackling underlying disaster risk drivers, such as … poverty and inequality, climate change and variability, unplanned and rapid urbanization … (UN/ISDR 2015, p. 4).

… a substantial reduction of disaster risk requires … a more explicit focus on people and their health and livelihoods … (UN/ISDR, 2015, p. 18).

A gender, age, disability and cultural perspective should be integrated in all policies and practices … (UN/ISDR, 2015, p. 19).

The roots of much disaster risk can be traced to historical development decisions. (UNDP, 2004, p. 4).

[P]ractices need to be multi-hazard and multisectoral, inclusive and accessible in order to be efficient and effective … (UNDP, 2004, p. 4).

[P]romote transboundary cooperation to enable … ecosystem-based approaches with regard to shared resources …(UN/ISDR, 2015, p. 24).

[Ensure] the use of traditional, indigenous and local knowledge and practices … to complement scientific knowledge … (UN/ISDR, 2015, p. 21).

The single most obdurate obstacle to sustainable mountain development is warfare … In any and all its forms … (Ives et al., 1997, p. 457).

[We] will have less sustained impact if we do not adequately take account of people’s cultures, beliefs and attitudes in relation to risk. (IFRC, 2015, p. 8).

The Mountain Cryosphere as Risk Environment

… implement integrated environmental and natural resource management approaches …

UN/ISDR (2015, p. 26)

Extent of the MC

The scope of people-centered concerns as well as cryospheric hazards depends partly on whether a narrow or a broad definition of the MC adopted. The former concentrates on the classic alpine zone; a European notion embracing the high-elevation tundra of mid-latitudes (alb = white), or areas above the timberline. It is sometimes subdivided into seasonally thawed “alpine” and (perpetual) “nival” zones. Comparable cold, bare, and frozen zones occur high in inner continental and tropical mountains such as the Himalaya (= “abode of snow”) and Muztagh (= “ice mountains”), and the tierra Nevada (“snowy”) or Helada (“frozen”) in Andean South America (Ives et al., 1997; Price, 1981).

In the alpine zone permanent residents tend to be few or none, activities seasonal or short-term. Worldwide, the greatest numbers of people are those engaged in the archetypal “alpine” activity, seasonal grazing or vertical transhumance. “Alps” also mean “high pastures.” Core alpine areas attract modern facilities for skiing and mountaineering, mining of high-value ores, health and amenity centers, mountain parks, biosphere reserves, and heritage sites (Bury, 2015; Mrak, 2011; Price, Moss, & Williams, 1997). The few places occupied year-round include mountain resorts and religious refuges, some research stations, mines, checkpoints and border posts, and, increasingly, camps for maintenance workers along mountain highways or tunnels.

An alternative, comprehensive view embraces all mountains where frost and snow occur, extending the MC well below timberlines as well as permanently frozen areas, to include mountain forests and grasslands, dry, rain-shadowed interiors, and vast areas of deforested or otherwise humanly modified slopes (Renaud, Sudmeier-Rieux, & Estrella, 2013). This embraces some hundreds of millions in resident populations and much greater diversity of cultures, activities, and disaster histories. Examples would include the blizzards or ice storms of Eastern Canada and the USA, that spread from cold mountaintops to seasonally warm foothills and lowlands.

The classic alpine highlights places and activities continuously affected by cold, snow, and ice, surely of special concern. Yet, it can miss the full range of cryosphere-related dangers, the largest, more complex disasters, and the place of mountain people in wider national, commercial, and religious groups. As such, this article keeps both the narrow and broad views in mind.

Disasters in the MC

Classes of disaster, their interpretation, and spatial and temporal complexities are addressed in the literature (Blaikie, Cannon, Davis, & Wisner, 1994; Hannigan, 2012; Hewitt, 1997; Mileti, 1999; Quarantelli, 1998). The MC shares many of the issues discussed there and elsewhere in this encyclopedia.

To introduce MC disaster problems, several case studies will be presented. They are summaries intended to show how social conditions enter in.

Short Case Studies

Kande GLOF and Debris Flows; Hushe Valley, Karakoram Himalaya, July 27, 2000

Debris flows brought near-complete destruction of Kande village’s fields, orchards, primary school, and most homes, about 125 in all (Fig. 1). The source was a cryospheric environment of glacier tongues and rock glaciers, some active, some stagnant; of permafrost, avalanche deposits, and melt water ponds. These helped generate the destructive agents and chain of events beginning, apparently, with the bursting of a small supraglacial lake at about 4,590 m elevation. This initiated a flood, quickly transformed to a debris flow in its steepest 1,000 m descent of a narrow gulley. Settled areas were buried in this debris. Smaller outbursts continued for 8 days. Affected areas have been abandoned.

The Human Ecology of Disaster Risk in Cold Mountainous RegionsClick to view larger

Figure 1. (a) Overhead view of Kande nallah (canyon) and debris flow damage. Village fields had covered all of the valley floor and fan. (b) Debris flow impacts where Kande fan joins Hushe River (photos KH 2001). (c) Vertical profile of Kande event, 2000.

Society may seem powerless against such sudden, unstoppable events. Remarkably, however, there were no fatalities. Villagers heard a roar 10 minutes before the deluge arrived, knew what it meant, and fled to higher ground. The community was left to recover largely on its own, but with help from a small, foreign nongovernmental organization (NGO) it has moved to a new site.

Some suggest the disaster involved climate change (Awan, 2014). That may be so, but preconditions were complicated. The main event occurred in clear, warm weather, but the preceding days were cooler with some precipitation (Din, Tariq, Mahmood, & Rasul, 2014). Three years earlier, on July 25, 1997, Kande had suffered a lethal debris flow from the same source but following a heavy rainstorm. Though less severe, it was unexpected and caused some 15 deaths. The 1997 flood helped prime conditions for the later disaster by incising deeply in the steep gulley. Permafrost and ground ice were exposed as low as 3,200 m, well below reported limits, evidently due to avalanching and northerly exposure (Hewitt, 2014, p. 275). Severe instability ensued, contributing to a massive buildup of unconsolidated sediment in the gulley floor, a decisive factor in 2000. Sudden debris flows are typical triggers of local disasters across the region (Khan, Haneef, Khan, & Tahirkheli, 2013; Santi, Hewitt, VanDine, & Barillas Cruz, 2010). Others occurred nearby at Haldi in a 1970s rainstorm and at Tallis in 2010 in conditions almost identical to Kande (Hewitt, 2004).

Kande’s recent socio-economic history cannot be ignored. From the mid-19th to mid-20th centuries extreme poverty was reported. Feudal conditions applied, its demands for tribute, military service, and corvée labor the main reason for destitution. These were ended in the 1970s, when road transport also arrived. Men became free to take paid work outside the village. Thereafter, better houses, fields, and orchards expanded over the flat valley floor. Older deposits on the Kande valley floor and alluvial fan record a history of debris flows. Evidently, long-term environmental knowledge, critical to safety in much of the region, was lost or ignored. Houses in the original sites of settlement, on slopes at the valley mouth and around the old mosque, did survive.

Belvedere Glacier Surge, Lakes, and Outburst Floods; Italian Alps, 2001–2003

From the spring of 2001, possibly earlier, and over some three years, the Belvedere Glacier underwent drastic changes in flow regime and related features (Mortara & Tamburini, 2009). In the summer of 2001 glacier movement accelerated by an order of magnitude, creating surge-type behavior with few precedents in the Alps. The glacier surface changed from a relatively smooth, debris-covered topography to heavily crevassed ice. Glacier thickening and advance overrode and destabilized the lateral and terminal moraines, triggering ice- and rockfalls from the outer moraine slope. This is a major tourist and skiing destination. Facilities were damaged or endangered, access routes and chair lifts closed.

In the spring of 2002, a supraglacial lake, Lago Effimero, developed, attaining a volume of some 3 million m3. The on-ice depression and lake were also unprecedented. Swift emergency actions followed, evacuating parts of the main center, Macugnaga (1,327 m). Alarm systems were installed as were pumps to lower the lake level. In the spring of 2003, however, the lake returned. There was a GLOF in mid-June. Thanks to flood control works and a concrete spillway, it bypassed inhabited areas, causing only minor damage and no fatalities. However, the potential for catastrophic floods was revealed, and a history of dangerous GLOFs from the glacier reconstructed (Haeberli et al., 2002).

These developments were attributed to rapid, large decreases of ice cover on the precipitous east face of Monte Rosa (4,643 m). Heavy rockfall activity affected the glacier. More generally, global warming is blamed, a cause of major ice loss throughout the Alps. As such, anthropogenic climate change is the primary hazard, cryospheric conditions secondary, if the main agents of damage.

Like Kande, the event involved several cryospheric conditions over a great range of elevation and a long-settled, culturally distinctive, village community. Again, thanks to timely warnings and evacuation, there were no casualties. In other respects the social situations are very different, as reflected in emergency responses. At Belvedere there was a huge intervention by public agencies, with costly engineering works for hazard mitigation. Cryospheric scientists and geotechnical consultants had important roles. State-of-the-art instruments were deployed. A range of institutions helped coordinated the effort, from the Macugnaga village council to national government.

These responses reflect an affluent community involved in high-value travel and recreational services at the heart of modern Europe. It reinforces several principles of modern disaster risk management; multi-disciplinary investigations, multi-hazard and multi-sectoral approaches, but also the value of close involvement of the community at risk. This was needed even more at Kande but missing as, indeed, happens in so many parts of the MC.

Salang Tunnel Disaster, Hindu Kush, Afghanistan, November 3, 1982

Salang Tunnel, reaching 3,400 m elevation, was built by the Soviet Union in the 1960s to connect Kabul to Central Asia, mainly for wartime military transport. In the winter of 1982, probably the world’s worst road disaster occurred there. Inside the tunnel, a military fuel tanker collided with a civilian vehicle and exploded (History, 2009; Ingason, Li, & Loennermark, 2015). A chain of death and destruction followed as trucks, cars, and buses continued to enter the tunnel. Two convoys were involved, one military, the other carrying civilians and war refugees. Then, fearing a mujaheddin guerilla attack, Soviet troops closed off both ends with tanks. Those trapped inside succumbed to flames, smoke, or carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning. Explosions and hazardous chemical cargoes were involved. The tunnel had no working ventilation system. CO came partly from drivers who kept engines running to counter the extreme cold. Some reports claim over 700 Soviet troops and 2,000 Afghan soldiers and civilians died.

The disaster was “man-made” but engaged a fatal chain of cryospheric hazards—low temperatures and, outside, snow, whiteouts, and avalanches along the highway. These factors stalled relief efforts and prevented people from descending to less severe conditions.

This version has been challenged by two reports. A belated Soviet report blamed a traffic jam at the meeting of two military convoys, causing fewer but still some 200 deaths, mainly by carbon monoxide poisoning from idling engines. Another report claims there was, indeed, a successful mujaheddin attack, a factor in the high casualties—and why Soviet and Afghan authorities attempted to hide or minimize losses!

Clearly, human factors were critical, mainly relating to the war. It put huge pressures on tunnel use, by the military, by people fleeing the fighting or traveling to find work, basic supplies, or markets. At that time, as many as 10,000 vehicles passed through daily. The tunnel was designed for one-way traffic, but in 1982 two-way traffic was allowed, magnifying the congestion during the disaster. Accidents and casualties tend to increase wherever civilians and military transport share the same road space. In the upper reaches of the pass, drivers were on their own. No roadside assistance existed if hypoxia or other problems affected them. Tanks and armed units were posted at the tunnel. No adequate fire prevention, first aid posts, ventilation, or evacuation plans existed.

The tunnel was reopened and still operates. A steady toll of accidents and death continues. In February 2010 heavy snow and avalanches killed around 170 persons and injured 125. Over 3,000 had to be rescued (Whiteman, 2011, p. 213). This introduces the special conditions and concerns of tunnel disasters in the MC addressed later.

The Kyagar Ice Dam and GLOF, Uigur Autonomous Region, Western China, August 11, 1999

In 1999, a GLOF from the Karakoram headwaters of the Yarkand (Yarkant-He) River caused some $25 million in damages in the Tarim Basin lowlands near Kashgar. Peak flood discharge was the third highest since the 1880s and second highest since the 1920s (Hewitt & Liu, 2010). The resulting damage affected 18,700 ha of farmland, 3,000 head of livestock, flood control works, and roads. About 8,000 families were displaced. Timely warnings and evacuation prevented casualties. The types and scale of damage reflect recent, rapid development in the Kashgar District, where floods now threaten some 1.8 million people, 38 million ha of irrigated land, major irrigation canals, six hydropower plants, and planned railway bridges.

The GLOF illustrates MC hazards that can threaten distant lowlands. It originated with a lake at 4,740 m elevation, dammed by an advance of the Kyagar Glacier in the vast, uninhabited region of the upper Shaksgam-Yarkand Basin. To reach areas at risk, the flood wave traveled over 500 km and descended some 3,500 m.

The glacier is 19.0 km long, and the lake grew to almost 3 km in length, the ice dam over 200 m high. Most large Karakaram GLOFs are due to ice dams, a somewhat different hazard from the moraine barriers involved in GLOFs elsewhere in Himalaya ranges (Richardson & Reynolds, 2000) or the “alluviones” of the high Andes (Carey, 2010; Lliboutry et al., 1977). Ice dams only occur with glacier advance and thickening. The lakes are “self-dumping,” controlled by relations of dam thickness and stability and lake size. Impoundments develop fairly quickly and rarely last more than a few months. They may be resealed after an outburst and in episodes lasting some years, as at Kyagar in 1997, 1998, and 1999.

The glacier’s repeated advances contrast with the glacial retreat and stagnation reported elsewhere. Weather conditions and extremes do affect the scale and timing of outbursts. Unusual warmth preceded the 1999 event, with an average annual air temperature 2.1°C higher than the previous 50-year mean at Tashkorgan (3091 m, elevation). Through the winter of 1998–1999, air temperatures were the highest for the previous 50 years.

Before the 1970s, dams were only observed by rare expeditions. GLOFs arrived in Tarim Basin unannounced and could cause huge casualties. Thereafter, satellite monitoring and a gauging station have provided warnings and prevented loss of life (Hewitt, 1982). The problems of rugged, high-altitude, and uninhabited areas are evident, but until the 19th century, a regularly used offshoot of the ancient Silk Road passed nearby. Access is now difficult and expensive, although the main impediment to scientific investigations is security restrictions. In the mid-1980s an expedition made field measurements (Zhang et al., 1990), and intensive studies were resumed in 2011 (Haemmig et al., 2014). Since 2014 an automatic camera station sends daily images of the dam site which, with frequent satellite passes, dramatically improves flood prediction and warnings.

The Nevado del Ruiz Catastrophe, Colombia, November 13, 1985

At Nevado del Ruiz (5,321 m), an Andean volcano, eruptive activity was detected in September 1985. A sharp increase in November presaged a major eruption. Falls and flows of hot ash melted glaciers and snowfields that cover the summit. A small crater lake emptied. These generated lahars—hot, volcanic mudflows—that traveled at high speed (>60 km/hr) into rivers draining the massif. They carried lumps of ice and large boulders. Entrainment of erodible substrates greatly increased their volume (Pierson, Janda, Thouret, & Borrero, 1990). In towns far below the volcano there was huge loss of life. The most lethal lahars struck the town of Armero, just 2½ hours after the eruption began. Over 20,000 people died, a quarter of its population. Total deaths exceeded 23,000, injured about 5,000, homeless 20,000, and economic losses over $1 billion.

If classed as a volcanic disaster, snow and ice were decisive. They turned a fairly small eruption into the second largest volcanic disaster in the Western Hemisphere, globally the fourth largest in modern times. Again, developments in the MC affected distant communities. Armero lies at 335 m elevation, in warm equatorial lowlands, 45 km distance and 5000 m below the summit.

However, great as the geophysical forces were, the story was much more one of human tragedy and failure (Chester, 1993, pp. 292–296; Voight, 1996). Death tolls suggest settlements and inhabitants were completely unprepared, although governments at all levels received urgent warnings. In October, volcanologists warned of the high risk of lahars. A hazard map showing the lahar threat to Armero and other towns appeared in newspapers and notices to affected areas. If poorly drawn, it was, in any case, ignored. Evacuation plans were proposed but resisted, including one for Armero issued by the Red Cross. Many victims, instructed to stay in their houses, died trapped in the congealing mud.

Safety was severely compromised by events that may seem unrelated. There was a power failure during the night. Thunder and winds from a severe storm prevented people from hearing the approaching lahars. Highway bridges were destroyed, delaying emergency crews. Even more critical was civil strife. In the weeks before the eruption, an ongoing violent insurgency came to a head with bombings in the capital, Bogota. The social violence received far more official attention than the volcano.

The central government and security forces not only failed to act on scientists’ warnings, they accused them of being irresponsible and “scare-mongering.” Equally fatal was the lack of long-term planning, even in the Armero district, a quite prosperous rice-, cotton-, and coffee-growing region. Yet the hazards had been well established. A dozen Quaternary eruptions of the volcano had been identified. Historians told how lahars had buried the Armero fan in 1585 and 1845, although the town itself was only founded in 1895. It was clear that effective use of geophysical science depends upon humanitarian principles and protections against social neglect and indifference, an issue in most of the MC (Ives, 1997; Popovski, 2014).

The Gorkha, Nepal, Earthquake, 25 April, 2015

In April and May of 2015 a destructive earthquake and aftershocks in Nepal led to almost 9,000 deaths and 23,000 injured. Some 450,000 people were displaced and 8 million affected in all (Aydan & Ulusay, 2015; Government of Nepal, 2015). Losses are estimated in the $7–8 billion range, 85% occurred in the housing sector. The magnitude 7.8 earthquake, of shallow (10–15 km) focal depth in the Himalayan foothills, had huge potential for damage. Fatalities may have been reduced because, near midday on a Saturday, many people were outside. Hundreds of schools and offices were destroyed or badly damaged, but were largely unoccupied at the time.

Casualties were heaviest in the lesser Himalayan ranges around Ghorka and in Kathmandu basin where building collapses involved slope failures, subsidence, and liquefaction of weak soils. There were substantial effects in the Himalayan MC of Everest, Langtang, and Annapurna regions and in Tibet. Large numbers of destructive avalanches, rockfalls, and landslides occurred. The risk of outbreak floods came from landslide dams. An avalanche wiped out Langtang village, killing everyone present. A major avalanche off Pumori (7,161 m), about 220 km from the epicenter, descended onto and destroyed the Mount Everest (8,848 m) base camp. It killed about 20 people and injured over 60. Multiple landslide disasters in the subsequent 2015 monsoon season were attributed, in part, to slopes destabilized in the earthquake. However, assessments also showed that, to a great extent, building damage reflected poor construction, siting, and upkeep. Tourism losses were serious. This industry accounts for a quarter of the Nepal economy, and was the focus of swift and concerted relief efforts.

At the time of writing the full story remains to be told. Sharp differences appear in the speed and effectiveness of responses. It seemed rapid for climbers and tourists and in historic areas within the capital, conspicuously covered by “social media.” Rapid Chinese emergency measures concentrated on re-opening the highway from Tibet, a tribute to the importance given to road communications. Many days, weeks, and even months passed before assistance reached some of the most heavily damaged rural areas and for hard-hit indigenous groups. Six months after the “quake,” survivors remain in temporary camps. Outbreaks are reported of scabies, fungal infections, and other skin diseases. Children suffer from diarrhea, fever, cough, and headache. Monsoonal rain and increasing cold are partly to blame, aggravated by inadequate drainage systems in the camps (EGH, 2015). Meanwhile, women and children survivors have been exposed to trafficking, forced labor, and sexual abuse (Burke, 2015).

This event introduces disasters of great scale and scope, having complex relations to the MC (Hewitt, 1997). Earthquake was the primary hazard, but secondary cryospheric hazards did much damage. Both high alpine and broader MC areas were involved, but were just part of the whole area affected. There were deaths in the adjacent countries of India, China, Bhutan, and Bangladesh. Such a disaster generates a massive international relief and aid effort—in this case involving at least 52 countries and a wide range of international agencies, charities, and NGOs.

Some Preliminary Observations

The case studies offer a limited cross section, but it is enough to introduce the diversity of damages, concerns, and social contexts. It can hardly be doubted that these were disasters for those affected and warrant humanitarian concern, examples of occasions likely to involve disaster management. They highlight rapid-onset and high-threshold events or environmental extremes, leading to concentrated death and/or destruction. Where official preparedness exists, they will be declared disasters and call upon outside assistance. However, some qualifications are needed.

On the one hand, such events hardly encompass all severe threats that mountain communities face. There is a valid argument that the “great disasters” in the contemporary world stem from contagious disease, armed violence and war, traffic accidents, smoking and cancers, among others. These also affect people in the MC and can have the most lethal consequences there. Likewise, there are slow-onset threats involving environmental trends. Those associated with climate change have seized attention recently, possibly a factor in the incidence of sudden-onset events. However, while helping situate disaster studies within broad societal and environmental concerns, other major fields address these concerns: national security, disease control, and a range of specialized environmental divisions and disciplines, or agencies like the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The disaster community must work with them, but, equally, the special demands that arise from disasters of the kinds identified above must be recognized.

On the other hand, such events cannot be explained by themselves; that is, as only or mainly direct consequences of extreme geophysical triggers and the crisis conditions that follow. Rather, it is essential to consider preconditions set up, especially, by social forces, everyday activities, and development. In all the cases described, impacts and responses depend upon pre-existing environmental relations, or environmental trends, and economic development. Human preconditions and histories emerge as critical in every case. Casualties, destruction, and responses relate to established land uses and livelihoods, demographics and past experience, access to information, and wealth or lack of it. From Kande to the Everest base camp and lowland Armero, death and destruction occurred because high mountain and cryospheric conditions had been ignored, aggravated, or defied rather than merely being inevitable, unstoppable forces of nature.

The events described also suggest a need to differentiate among:

  • Disasters within and largely confined to the MC and those:

    1. i) initiated by cryospheric hazards (Kande, Belvedere)

    2. ii) initiated by other hazards with secondary cryospheric impacts (Salang Tunnel)

  • Dangers originating in the MC that bring disaster to people and activities outside it (Kyagar, Nevado del Ruiz)

  • Disasters originating outside the MC but causing losses within it, possibly from secondary cryospheric hazards (Ghorka earthquake)

The Nepal catastrophe underlines how other geohazards beset the MC, some potentially even more severe such as earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and catastrophic landslides. These add to and interact with cryospheric hazards, as do intense sunshine and hypoxia, severe storms, wildfires, and flood-prone rivers.

Generally, disasters show a need for interdisciplinary science and a multi-hazards approach, the latter raising two concerns. First, any given community or place in the MC is subject to a variety of threats. Second, responses to any one danger affect the others, directly and through shared or competing investments and priorities. This is an integral part of disaster risk.

Mountain Cryosphere Environments

With these reports, and some awareness of what cold mountain disasters can involve, we can return to the conditions that shape disaster risk, losses, and responses in the MC. Since these are places marked, above all, by diversity, a first question is whether a way exists to help order and synthesize such complex concerns?


A perennial, unifying theme of mountain studies is how physical and life zones are organized by altitude and connected vertically. Wherever steep terrain combines with at least a few hundred meters of relief, upward-changing sequences of environments arise. They differ more or less strongly in climate and geomorphic processes. Since von Humboldt’s classic work in the Andes, studies have revealed how mountain life forms and ecosystems exhibit altitudinal zones, transitions (ecotones), and mosaic-like or more complex patterns. Human societies have adapted their behavior or land uses to exploit varying resources upslope and to avoid the dangers of different elevations (Brush, 1976). These identify the “altitudinal belts” of Murra (1972) and “vertical economies” of Fonseca Martel (1972), the “vertical zonation” of Klimek and Starkel (1984) or “altitudinal belts” of Kowalkoski and Starkel (1984), and the “altitudinal organization” of Hewitt (1993a).

Murra’s term verticality captures a more complete sense of issues: “… relating to or composed of elements at different levels … made up of many levels … of, constituting, or resulting in, vertical combination” or of, relating to, or noting a stratified society, nation, etc.” (, 2010, emphases added). Verticality covers both the sense of upward-successive environments and of exchanges up- and downslope. Critical for cryospheric hazards are downslope “cascades” of solid and liquid moisture, erosional debris, and valley winds, carrying the influence of higher environments into lower ones. At any given elevation, verticality can be identified with stronger seasonal variations and weather extremes, or moderate them, according to solar angle, shielding, and air mass regimes. Actual elevations will decide whether there is an MC at all. In any given area, interfluve and valley floor heights act as critical, fixed boundaries and constraints on whether ice and snow are found and their forms (Hewitt, 2014; Price, 1981). Details vary with local topoclimatic and terrain features and biotic adjustments (Barry, 2008). Climate change in mountains also operates vertically, and its form and consequences depend partly on available elevation range, the characteristics and vulnerability of existing altitudinal zones, and connections.

In rugged terrain, verticality combines with and gives special significance to slope and interfluve orientation, or aspect. According to latitude, solar angle creates thermal and other differences between southerly and northerly exposure. Elevation zones differ according to aspect. There are also dramatic differences between windward and leeward slopes, including differential effects on precipitation and humidity. How snowfall is distributed and redistributed across interfluves and around mountain massifs by wind action has major effects on cryosphere hazards (Hewitt, 2014).

Altitudinal zones, aspect, and season affect which cryospheric hazards are present,where they originate and may travel to. The incidence or scale of more extreme events such as avalanches, debris flows, or flash floods change or have differing impacts according to elevation, aspect, steepness and downslope transfers.

Verticality phenomena intensify as elevation and its span increase, as slopes steepen, and at lower latitudes. Studies of vegetation zones suggest that the greatest vertical differences and ecological diversity are in subtropical high mountains, as are the greatest human modifications of vegetation zones (Bader, Rietkerk, & Bregt, 2007; Ives, Messerli, & Spiess, 1997). For the MC to exist at all, mountains in lower latitudes must reach into high elevations, and a greater variety of ecological and economic activities can occur below the MC (Price, 2007).

Verticality is integral to human life in mountains. Economies have developed complex networks of exchange or seasonal migration adapted to vertical differences, ultimately through histories of migration, domestication, adjustment, and learning curves. Land use stacked and diversified over a range of elevations usually involves risk-averse strategies, part of the “vertical control” of Murra (1972). Networks of valley floor and contour-hugging paths, carefully discovered, link settlements and land uses—the “vertical archipelagoes” of Murra (1972; Brush, 1976). Scattered permanent settlements are bases for wide-ranging, opportunistic resource gathering. Spatial dispersal, accompanied by seasonal and other short-term, discontinuous mobility and extractive activities, adapts to hazards avoidance (Fig. 2).

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Figure 2. Shepherd (“Gujar”) families in early summer, taking their possessions to high pastures near glaciers of Naltar valley; part of the transhumance economy, Batura Mustagh, Karakoram Himalaya, Northern Pakistan. (photo KH 2008)

Verticality does not determine human risk. It does provide a framework for risk awareness in mountain settings and to help understand and compare how societies adapt to risk. Avoidance stratagems locate settlements least likely to be affected by debris flows, flash floods, glacier advance, or avalanches. Seasonal calendars for temporary occupancy at different altitudes are also risk management strategies.

In detail, patterns are rarely just horizontal or vertical. Sometimes boundaries are abrupt, but gradual transitions or ecotones are common, and more irregular mosaics. Traditional land uses adapt to vertical change through subhorizontal and checkered patterns, stepping upward in zigzag or oblique lines. Attempts to convey this include notions of “en echelon” or staggered patterns and transitions (Grötzbach & Stadel, 1997), and Zimmerer’s (1999) “overlapping patchworks of mountain agriculture.” Thus, to casual observation field terraces may seem mere steps. Close inspection reveals finely tuned adaptations to local verticality of water supply, slope stability, bedrock or other substrates, construction materials, orientation, crop types, and cultivation techniques (Fig. 3). Even in the same valley, these can vary with elevation, requiring differing cultural practices. Today, it is not unusual to find less stable or poorly constructed terraces in newly occupied land and less stable settings in response to economic pressures. Forest removal may add to instability. Such variations help determine susceptibility to erosion or slope collapse in wet weather or earthquakes (Hewitt, 1976).

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Figure 3. Vertical adaptations: terracing details in a steep ravine at 2,800 m in Baltistan, Karakoram Himalaya. Irrigation channels take snowmelt water to each terrace. Several women are weeding the fields. (photo KH 2010).


An indirect consequence of verticality is adaptation that favors dispersed settlement and activity. In much of the MC, human life appears thinly spread and scattered, if typically “nucleated” in villages or small towns. Occupied sites exploit breaks of slope such as benches, stream terraces, and basal zones (Figs. 4, 5, and 6). Confluence environments at valley junctions provide more suitable sites on sediment fans, small deltas, and intermontane basins (Hewitt, 1984). Dispersal arises partly because, in high mountains, much more space is taken up by uninhabitable rock walls, talus, and other unstable slope deposits, glaciers, and rock glaciers. There are avalanche runout zones, glacial outwash or sandur plains, and environments where cryospheric hazards originate or travel (Fig. 7).

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Figure 4. Sediment fans offer suitable, though risky, agricultural land between rugged slopes and flood-prone rivers; Shigar valley, Karakoram Himalaya. (photo KH 2010)

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Figure 5. Stream terraces can provide flat sites on the treads, where land use and settlements can develop, and step upwards; Braldu Gorge, Central Karakoram Himalaya. (photo KH 2005)

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Figure 6. The terraces at confluence environments are opportunistically settled, on surfaces that are away from flood and debris flow paths; Braldu Gorge, Central Karakoram Himalaya. (photo KH 2005)

The Human Ecology of Disaster Risk in Cold Mountainous RegionsClick to view largerThe Human Ecology of Disaster Risk in Cold Mountainous RegionsClick to view larger

Figure 7 (a) Adapting to the MC. Near the upper limit of terraced agriculture (ca. 3,000 m), and watered by streams from snow and ice melting high up, the Hopar villages (right middle ground) exploit somewhat more favorable slopes and glacial features. A great range of cryospheric hazards, changing and connecting vertically, affect most of the landscape (top center, Minapin Peak, 7,266 m); Bualtar Glacier, Rakaposhi Range, Hunza Karakoram. (photo KH 2009). (b) View of the Hopar villages from above (Hewitt, 2014). They overlook the Bualtar Glacier and hazards associated with a glacier surge. (photo KH 1987)

Dispersed settlement means the landslides or flash floods that are destructive mainly affect smaller households, villages, and enterprises. These can add up to a greater percentage of all losses (Santi et al., 2010). Even in larger, rarer calamities, like the Nepal 2015 earthquake, damages occur in widely scattered, multiple subevents of localized destruction. They reflect the scatter of pre-existing settlement, land use patterns, and their vulnerability. Damage patterns depart from the popular notion of “wall-to-wall” disaster zones. They are more complex than the bull’s eye image of an “epicenter” with impact forces and losses diminishing radially outwards.

Given the modern preference for intensified land uses, or urbanized settlement, concentration increases, most obviously through urbanization and major infrastructure and resource projects (see below). With modernization: “Vertical exchange is being replaced by horizontal links (roads and trucks) to economic centres, where goods are purchased at competitive prices and sold to middlemen …” (Bastien, 1986, p. 47). And such “horizontal links” are wedded to “24/7” all-year and all-weather connectedness and continuous operations. Many “accidents” and losses in disasters reflect clashes between modern development, verticality, and the dispersed nature of mountain peoples. The dispersed nature of MC occupancy, once almost universal, is partly to blame for images of its communities as marginal, backward, or undeveloped. However, dispersal in carefully placed settlements has proven among the safest, more sustainable adaptations to mountain opportunities and dangers. As Messerli & Ives (1997) describe it, “the mountains’ particular distinction from the other … ecological-cultural land assemblages … especially their overpowering verticality … renders them obdurate to conventional processes of modern world development” (p. 455, emphasis added). Verticality and seasonal aspects of human activities in Barpu–Bualtar Glacier basins, Nagyr, Karakoram Himalaya. The map shows the lay out of the basins, the permanent settlements low down, and the temporary seasonal settlements and path ways of pastoral transhumance.

The Human Ecology of Disaster Risk in Cold Mountainous Regions

The diagram shows the vertical dimensions of seasonal activities in the basins, places according to prevailing climatic zones at different elevations, and the downslope cascades of moisture and resource extraction.

The Human Ecology of Disaster Risk in Cold Mountainous Regions

Hazard Chains and Long-Runout Events

A general feature of disasters, often missed because they are labeled according to a primary trigger like flood or earthquake, is how destruction nearly always includes and follows from interactions of several hazards and a variety of social processes. Verticality magnifies the importance of this in the MC. Its disasters are rarely, if ever, about a single hazard or, indeed, only cryospheric hazards. Each case study revealed losses from multiple hazards, depending upon how they interact and, in particular, where vulnerable people and property were exposed to them. Such sequential or “knock-on” effects are exaggerated by verticality relations, especially through the downslope cascades of hazardous processes. It gives a particular significance to the topic of hazard chains (Xu, Meng, & Xu, 2014).

Cryospheric hazards commonly arise at the interface of two or more cold environment processes or ice forms—obviously so in the Italian Belvedere case. Sequences of changing processes reflect verticality in large releases of gravitational forces and changing conditions downslope. Snow or ice, highly sensitive to mechanical and thermal conditions, are readily transformed by travel to lower elevations. Glacier margins and ice-margin lakes give way to outwash streams, avalanche deposits to debris flows. Outcomes depend on the contributions of each and how they compound, magnify, or block different processes. Where snow and glaciers cover peaks, extreme melting, outburst floods, or volcanic eruptions are always complex (Fig. 8). Unconsolidated deposits cluster at breaks of slope, or former glacier margins, where more extreme processes can entrain the material. Stability and surface processes change if vegetation cover increases or decreases downslope. In forested catchments, woody debris can transform the behavior and impact of avalanches, landslips, and floods (Wohl, 2010). All these need to be covered in disaster risk assessments.

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Figure 8. Villarica volcano in Chile, during an eruption that melted glaciers near the summit, causing lahars. Forested areas in the foreground, well below the MC, are threatened by ash fall and lahars. (photo KH 1984)

If hazard chains are typical of MC disasters, in high mountains they introduce unique threats from long-runout events (Petrakov, Chernomorets, Evans, & Tutubalina, 2008). Some of the worst originate in the MC but travel far into warmer lowlands, as with Nevado del Ruiz and Kyagar (Table 2). Carey (2010) details calamitous effects of more than a dozen complex ice and rock avalanches, GLOFs, and debris flows that have descended from Peru’s Cordillera Blanca glaciers into adjacent valleys. He also reveals differing outcomes depending on how local, national, and international actors have responded.

Table 2. Calamitous, Long-Runout Events Originating in the Mountain Cryosphere and Associated Hazard Chains


Highest Source

Lowest Runout

Total Descent

Total Travel

Hazards Chain


6,500 m

0 (SL)

6,500 m

188 km


Nevado Rb

5,321 m

300 m

5,020 m

55 km



4,750 m

750 m

4,000 m

35 km



4,740 m

1,300 m

3,440 m

600 km


E. Parraguiree

4,350 m

0 (SL)

4,350 m

223 km


EQ = earthquake; MRSF = massive rock slope failure; IA = ice avalanche; RA = rock avalanche; DA = debris avalanche; MF = mass flow (undifferentiated); DF = debris flow; DD = debris flow dam; Fl = flood; VE = volcanic eruption; PF = pyroclastic flow; SIM == snow and ice melting; Lh = lahar; Gl. C == glacier collapse; Im = impoundment; Gl. Ad. = glacier advance; ID = ice dam; GLOF = glacier lake outburst flood; Sed = sedimentation episode; SL = sea level.

a. Nevados Huascaran avalanche and landslides, 1970 (Carey, 2010; Pflaker & Ericksen, 1978). b. Nevado del Ruiz lahars, 1985. c. Kolka–Karmadon, Caucasus, 2002 (Haeberli et al., 2004). d. Kyagar GLOF, 1999. e. Estero Parraguire debris flow, Chile, 1987 (Hauser, 2002).

In long-runout events damage profiles can resemble irregular strings of beads. Concentrated death and destruction occur where unprotected people or property are exposed along the path(s). The Nevado del Ruiz lahars caused little or no damage on the volcano and MC. Calamities occurred at a few settlements far down stream valleys, notably Armero.

At Estero Parraguirre, Chile, in 1987, where a rock-ice avalanche was transformed into debris flows, the mass traveled 25 km from the source before causing substantial casualties and 41 km before significant property damage (Hauser, 2002). Further on, timely warnings saved lives even as debris flows dammed streams and outbursts generated further debris surges. In the Russian Caucasus, the 2002 Kolka-Karmadon rock-ice avalanche brought a similar pattern of losses along roads and at scattered human settlements (Haeberli et al., 2004).

In such events, monitoring and warnings become critical in saving lives. Where they are absent, miscommunicated, or ignored, as at Armero, calamities ensue. “Hazards chains” converge with unfortunate “chains of explanation” (Blaikie et al., 1994). That is to say, the science may have been done, unsafe conditions and vulnerability identified, public safety issues understood, warnings issued. However, calamity is avoided only if there is appropriate action by responsible agencies.

Interpreting MC Disasters

Verticality and related conditions highlight distinctive habitat and adaptive challenges in the mountains. The extreme environmental hazards that may result are integral to disaster problems. Going further requires caution as to certain commonplace assumptions.

Countering Mountain Stereotypes

Typically, mountains in general and the MC in particular are treated as “harsh” environments, said to be isolated, fragile and marginalized, conservative and backward (Eckholm, 1975; FAO, 2011; Huber, Bugmann, & Reasoner, 2005, p. 585; Jodha, 1992; Stone, 1992). Other views emphasize the presence of “unspoilt” wildernesses, unconquered peaks, even that dreaded colonial claim, of “empty lands” or terra nullius, open for the taking. Although they can seem compelling in many places, “mountain specificities” like inaccessibility can support an environmental determinism that ignores the social, cultural, and historical background of human adaptations. They can mainly reflect outsiders’ perceptions and those Rhoades (1986) calls “flat-landers” views.

Consider Mount Everest or the Salang Pass. It is difficult to think of harsher, more “remote” places, with more severe cryospheric hazards. Nevertheless, in April 2015 there were 400 foreign mountaineers and many more support workers on Everest. In 1982 some 10,000 vehicles passed through the Salang Tunnel, daily! The disasters revealed how fatal these circumstances could be, but they hardly epitomize inaccessibility or mountain “fastnesses.” As Libiszewski and Bächler (1997, p. 120) express it: “Impenetrability is a myth versus interdependence as a reality.”

People may choose or accept seclusion, even privation, as the price of independence in a mountain fastness. Like marginalization, however, it too is rooted in socially constructed realities. Key aspects of the inhabited MC have at least as much to do with human history as environmental constraints and, typically, are influenced by the highland–lowland interactions discussed below.

More damaging, in the context of disaster risk, is how such stereotypes have been used to repress, diminish, exclude, or abandon certain peoples, notably more traditional and, especially, indigenous mountain folk. These are often the main victims in environmental disasters but, rather than environmental determinism, their plight arises from socio-economic powers and priorities that neglect or suppress them. While marginalization is often seen to result from physical distance and ruggedness in the mountain “peripheries,” it comes largely from socio-economic marginalization. This has been revealed in research from the Appalachians to the Caucasus, from the East African highlands to the high Andes. It is widely accompanied by disadvantages reinforced by racial and cultural stereotypes (Bodley, 2008).

The point is reinforced where “isolation” has emerged as equally or more critical in disasters far from the mountains. In modern cities, thousands experience acute social isolation from lack of contact or indifference of neighbors, or cuts in public services rather than intervening wilderness. Social neglect and abandonment has been a decisive factor in deaths in urban disasters, notably the impoverished elderly, infirm, and mentally disturbed or sufferers from drug abuse (Keller, 2015).

Of course, there are also mountains where wealthy, well-provided-for people have been and are concentrated—places noted for major trade and cultural exchanges, important cities, high-value products, or healthy retreats (Jianchu & Rana, 2005). Adding to the complexities today is how some modern and well-connected occupants of the MC are in seemingly remote, isolated places—in research stations, mines, military installations, or high-end resorts.

It sum, disaster risk, as, indeed, processes of stereotyping, are underpinned by histories of political struggle and social change (Omara-Ojunga, 2000; Pohl, 2014). Braudel (1973) offers the grand view; how mountains, their snows, livestock, trade goods, and labor are perennial elements in the long history of the Mediterranean world. Then again, quite small mountain societies have complex political histories that can be critical in understanding MC disasters. Examples are Yungay and the Callejón de Huaylas in Andean Peru (Bode, 1989; Haller, 2010; Oliver-Smith, 1986) and Hunza in the Karakoram Himalaya (Hussain, 2015; Kreutzmann, 2006; Stellrecht & Bohle, 1998). In these and other cases, mountain disasters are also shown to have long-term human causes and legacies (Oliver-Smith, 1999). De Broissart (1986) reminds us how the severe disruption of “incredibly” rich food resources of the pre-Columbian, Bolivian Andes by the Spanish conquest created a “situation that has not stopped deteriorating since the fall of Incaic organization” (p. 63). In such places, understanding risk depends, in Le Roy Ladurie’s (2008) words, on linking cryosphere and cliosphere, “the realm of history.”

Social Vulnerability

In disaster zones everyone may seem equally at risk, the impacts indiscriminate, survival mainly a matter of luck or outside, professional help. However, social profiles reveal large differences in exposure, losses, and recovery according to sectors and types of person (Bankoff et al., 2004; Cutter, 2001; Hewitt, 2007; Wijkman & Timberlake, 1984).

Disasters do occur in the wealthiest mountain areas, but poverty seems the main source of greater vulnerability. This underscores Jianchu and Rana’s (2005) point: “Of the 10% [of mountain populations] living above 2,500 m almost all—over 70 million—live in poverty and are vulnerable to food insecurity and mountain hazards, vulnerabilities and risks.” Common risk factors relate to “limited availability of technology, unsustainable uses of natural resources, declining ecosystems, epidemics and pandemics” (UN/ISDR, 2015). Chronic disease undermines health and is identified with vulnerability of children, women, and the elderly. Ill-health is primarily the result of decisions and policies in the valleys or countries concerned. Again, social disadvantages outdo environmental hazards (Blaikie et al., 1994). It would, however, be a mistake to imply that people are only vulnerable. Mountain communities prepare against disaster and have evolved many practices to avoid and offset it. When disaster occurs, whoever survives will also respond and transform the tragedy to the extent of their resources, with or without outside assistance. An elegant summary of the ways this can play out is given in Diemberger et al.’s (2015) study of several Himalayan and Tibetan pastoral communities. They also show the importance of religious notions of the sacred roles of mountains, snow and ice, and struggles with insensitive state interference.

It is a sad fact that socio-economic realities can leave some groups with few or no options to avoid exposure to given hazards. As Maskrey (1989) said of earthquake-, landslide-, and flood-exposed slums around Lima, Peru: “ [the people] would not choose to live there if they had any alternative … [but] it is the best-of-the worst of … disaster-prone scenarios such as having nowhere to live, no way to make a living, or having nothing to eat”(p. 12). Such socially adverse conditions, choices enforced or disallowed rather than physically impossible, lie behind disaster losses throughout the MC. An adequate survey is not possible here, but certain contexts and peoples can underscore the major issues.

Neglected Worlds: Himalayan Women at Risk

The Greater Himalayan region is noted for important themes like “disappearing glaciers” and “water towers of humankind” (Viviroli, 2009). Rarely mentioned are the tens of millions of women who live among these “towers” and who have frequent, even daily, contact with glaciers, snow, freeze-thaw, or melt waters. Indeed, their livelihoods will likely be affected soonest and most strongly by climate change (Nellemann et al., 2011).

Throughout the region, women’s labor and skills are indispensable to agro-pastoral economies of transhumance type (Jones, 2009). Many are themselves the shepherds ranging widely through the MC, or accompany their menfolk. A few million—no actual count exists—spend summers in seasonally snow-free pastures and permafrost terrain. They tend animals and collect fodder, firewood, and herbs (Azhar-Hewitt, 1999). They work surrounded by high rock walls and within earshot of avalanches, rockfalls, and debris flows (Fig. 9). Summer villages or camps are located along glaciers, at rock glacier margins, or beside the thousands of glacial ponds and small lakes, recently inventoried for serious hazards (Zhang, Yao, Xie, Wang, & Yang, 2015). In winter they return to snow-covered and frost-prone settlements (Fig. 10).

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Figure 9. The summer pasture (“Pamir”) at Shimshal Pass (4,735 m), where women of Shimshal village, Hunza Karakoram, tend the herds. (photo KH 2009)

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Figure 10. Winter conditions in the MC; approximately 3,000 m elevation in Braldu valley, Mustagh Karakoram. Villagers from Askole village take animals out in a desperate search for grazing under the snow. (photo KH 1962)

Near-universal neglect of these women is underscored by Gurung (2012), who calls them “invisible farmers,” and Rudaz and Debarbieux’s (2012) the “silent contributors to sustainable development.” Reports show them working incredibly hard. Many suffer recurrent health problems, undernourishment, mental stress, and a low life expectancy (Giles, 1984). Strong in so many respects, their plight is rooted in low socio-economic status (Azhar-Hewitt, 2011). A few sources describe their encounters with snow and ice (Hewitt, 2014; Leduc, 2008; Nyborg, 2002).

Taking the Karakoram Himalaya as an example, 86% of households are in the agro-pastoral sector (Benz, 2013, p. 115). Women’s participation is likely higher since in these mostly traditional Islamic societies, few can enter other types of employment. A further indicator is that, in 2006, only 25% of women were deemed literate, compared to 75% of men. A large out-migration of male labor increases women’s responsibilities in the traditional economy and exposure to MC hazards (Goodall, 2004).

It is important not to underestimate women’s roles in disaster preparedness, rescue, and recovery (Deckens, 2007; Hamilton & Halvorson, 2007; Zorn, 2015). In crises, gender roles break down or are temporarily set aside. The writer has witnessed how women survivors are suddenly more visible in Karakoram villages following storms, landslides, and earthquake. They work with men or carry out tasks normally reserved for them, from rebuilding homes or terraced fields to burying the dead (Hewitt, 1993b). This happens before outside assistance arrives—if it does—when women return to their hidden roles.

Comparable numbers of women reside in the MC of other High Asian ranges, in Andean South America, the Middle East, and African highlands. Generally they are among the “poorest of the poor,” another indicator of greater disaster risk (Enarson & Chakrabarti, 2009; FAO, 2011). Opening up disaster management to gender awareness remains a work in progress, not least in the MC, but every step has served to expand the sense of its critical role in vulnerability and response (Enarson & Morrow, 1998).

Fully Modernized Sectors

Contrary to common assumptions, the inhabited MC has webs of modernized personnel and institutions, even outside wealthy countries. They include security, customs, and border stations; military camps and bases; all-weather highways and hydroelectric dams; hotels and other tourist facilities; hospitals and banks in small towns. The individuals involved are mostly on short-term assignment, for a year or two at most, and strongly connected to downcountry metropoles. A few are accompanied by their families. Most are men. Mountain folk from high-status families or with successful businesses may belong here.

Relatively small in number, these persons have great influence on disaster risk, not least where they cater to large numbers of temporary visitors, whether tourists, pilgrims, construction crews, or military units (Kreutzmann, Hofer, & Richter, 2009). They have priority access to road, air, and electronic communications and other modern services. When heavy equipment is rolled out to keep trans-mountain highways open, their demands come first, as for the military planes or helicopters that come and go. Usually, any local clients and residents contacted by hazards experts or consultants are persons in this category. A common assumption is that, if disaster risk is to be improved these sectors must lead.

In the ever-growing areas that attract mountaineers, skiers, trekkers, and travelers generally, their needs play a foremost role in risk and disaster prevention, even in otherwise poor as well as wealthier and high-value mountain areas. Not surprisingly, given that so many cryosphere scientists are also avid climbers or skiers, these facilities are identified with perhaps the most highly developed hazards fields, especially avalanche research, monitoring, and protections (Fuchs, Keiler, & Sokratov, 2015).

Indigenous Peoples

A great variety of indigenous peoples still occupy core areas of the MC, as also the circum-Arctic cold lands. The term “indigenous” tends to be applied to modern, post-colonial, and internal colonial settings—to people separated from but ruled by a dominant, majority culture, by conquerors and settlers, or downcountry powers. Almost all pre-European peoples of the Americas, North and South, are seen as indigenous, as opposed to former slaves and other postconquest labor, or multicultural “settlers.” Increasingly, however, ‘indigenous’ refers to any long-settled peoples with distinctive cultures attached to their mountain lands.

Indigenous mountain groups are sometimes celebrated for exceptional environmental knowledge, adaptive capacities, and sustainable lifestyles. Sendai principles suggest risk reduction will only occur by listening to them (UN/ISDR, 2008). That happens in few places. A 2009 study revealed “alarming statistics on indigenous peoples’ poverty, health, education, employment, human rights, the environment and more” (UN-DESA, 2015). Again it is important not to confuse this with mountain stereotypes, as opposed to outcomes of colonial histories in which indigenous peoples lost their former territories and resources, typically being forced into more marginal, less productive areas. In the North American cordilleras, most “First nations” have Fourth World social and economic profiles. Many of them in the Andes endure atrocious living conditions, health problems, high infant mortality, and low life-expectancy (Psacharopoulos & Patrinos, 1994). Increasingly, indigenous groups are forced into urban and peri-urban settlements, and likely absorbed into their slum populations (Bodley, 2008).

Distinct cultural minorities in the Asian and African mountains, like the women pastoralists described above, share the same problems. Hardest hit in the 2015 Nepal earthquake were certain Tamang and Chepang peoples. Among them a predisaster survey by UNICEF (2009) found severe childhood malnutrition; a third underweight, 11% undernourished and, among under-fives, 41% with stunted growth. A key factor was said to be their low caste status and poor treatment by the dominant society. In general, the unusual disaster vulnerability of indigenous groups reflects entrenched racial or ethnically defined oppression and marginalization (Howitt, Havnen, & Veland, 2012). In recent decades, indigenous peoples of the African and Asian MC, have been put at risk by war, repression or neglect; marginalized during the creation of new states and as centers of authority change or boundaries are redrawn. No one was more severely affected than them, by the rise and collapse of the Soviet Union and, currently, with the re-emergence of China and India as major regional powers (Kreutzmann & Watanabe, 2016). As such, the principles adopted at Sendai (see Box 1) challenge the disasters community by also aligning it with initiatives to establish and defend the rights of indigenous peoples (UN-HRC, 2007; UNPFII, 2015). Nowhere is this a greater responsibility than in the MC.

Traditional women farmers, indigenous peoples, and the most modern developments focus on the predicaments of certain groups and the great span of social categories they include. It is equally important to highlight the ever greater and more complex settings where the fate of formerly distinct groups becomes intertwined.

States of Transition: Urbanization and Peri-Urban Settlements

Rural folk still outnumber urban in much of the MC, but not everywhere. In 2010 urbanites comprised almost 90% in Chile and New Zealand, more than 70% in most Andean and mountainous European countries. Conversely, they were 25% or less in Afghanistan and Ethiopia, the Tibetan Autonomous Region and Sikkim. In the latter, however, as almost everywhere, urbanization is growing (Grover, Borsdorf, Breuste, Tiwari, & Frangetto, 2014, pp. 106–110). The most concentrated losses in disasters tend to occur where urban growth has involved poor or no planned improvements, where suburbs spread and are crowded by new buildings and subdivisions. Unsafe conditions include lack of public services, potable water, and sewer and waste disposal systems. Bhutan’s capital, Thimphu, is said to be a typical, rapidly worsening example. Until quite recently a small, well-managed town, it now sprawls up slopes and along mountain streams, encountering or creating ever-greater problems of drainage, untreated garbage, pollution, and overcrowding (Gyelmo, 2016). Such conditions are typical precursors of severe impacts in disasters (Guadagno, Depietri, & Urbano Fra Paleo, 2013).

To date, cities have received little coverage in MC studies, even in landmark reports on mountain environments (Beniston, 2000; Price, 2006). Yet, as in the examples from Nepal in 2015 or Colombia in 1985, disaster losses increasingly reflect the character and pace of urbanization. In the disasters field it has become a foremost concern (Fernandez, 1999; IFRCRCS, 2010; Pelling, 2003; Stone, 1992). The MC shares many problems that make urban congestion, its unhealthy and degraded environments, the sites of major disaster losses. Steepland and cold conditions add some specially intractable dimensions to such urban risk (Maskrey, 1989), but so do the unique social mosaics of old and new urbanites in the MC.

There are uncounted thousands (millions?) of people from traditional agro-pastoral communities recently forced into urban slums by economic pressures, war, and disasters. In such places everyday life itself takes on the character of a disaster (Davis, 2006). Crowded in unfamiliar surroundings, many unemployed, trafficked, and abused, they are another large, but largely ignored, condition of disaster vulnerability (Humanity United, 2014). They exemplify the human cost of what Stone (1992, p. 5) calls “the growing contradiction between marginalization and integration” of mountain communities.

Another closely related and growing phenomenon is peri-urbanisation—places not entirely or officially urban nor rural (Qin, 2005). These are sprawling strips or patches of settlement that follow and crowd beside highways and in near-urban land. The attractions of urban jobs, facilities, or scavenging and organized crime collide with and in already overcrowded towns. It may be in narrow valleys, confined between steep walls and torrential streams, or other constraints of verticality. The Himalaya and the Andes have explosive growth of peri-urban settlements (Haller, 2014; Hewitt & Mehta, 2012). Most are havens for displaced mountain people and migrant workers, but some attract wealthier ex-urbanites, resource extraction, and even tourism. Some have wealthy residents and enterprises taking advantage of cheaper real estate or labor, cooler weather, and fine views, but glad to avoid planning and environmental laws. The majorities are low-income groups living in slum-like conditions on unsafe sites. Few have any urban services such as garbage removal. Their exceptional vulnerabilty in disasters was seen in the 2005 Pakistan and 2015 Ghorka earthquakes (Government of Nepal, 2015; World Bank, 2014).

Disasters and Development

In disaster studies, economic and social development offer interpretive frameworks and underlying risk factors. An influential report for the DRR community found that “[w]hile only 11 percent of the people exposed to natural hazards live in low human development countries they account for more than 53 percent of recorded deaths. Development status and disaster risks are closely linked” (UNDP, 2004).

Large parts of the MC are commonly viewed as disaster-prone because they are underdeveloped and have Third or Fourth World economic profiles. However, while favorable development can improve safety across the board, when unequal, exploitative, or badly planned it has the opposite effect (Hewitt, 2013; Scott, 1998). Broad statistical summaries and development status only hint at effects on exposure to hazards and response capacities. Risk assessments need to consider whether improvements or enforcement of safety standards were successful or not. Equally they must confront adverse trends through undermining of more traditional livelihoods and knowledge, especially in mountain agricultural and pastoral sectors, village communities, and housing (Davis et al., 2004). Meanwhile, virtually every modern technology and activity can bring unique dangers to the MC—from dams and bridges to introduced crops or pesticides. An indication of relevant concerns emerges from exploring safety aspects of the rapidly expanded scope of roads and schools in the MC.

Roads and Risk

Images of inaccessible places persist, but, in fact, modern communications extend through most of the inhabited MC. Rail transport led the way into the mountains of wealthier countries. A few hundred airports are now within the MC, as well as increased provision of helicopter access. Each system has had its share of rare but lethal transportation accidents. However, nothing quite equals road building in extent and effects on habitats, life, and risk.

Since 1945 several million kilometers of roads have been built in the MC, as well as countless bridges, tunnels, and switchbacks. The greatest densities of paved roads and expressways remain in more affluent lands. However, by the 21st century, even in poor countries, few settlements were not reachable by four-wheel-drive vehicles at least. This has opened up wider and speedier opportunities for mountain products and labor (Fig. 11). Motorized traffic itself has dramatically altered the balance of mortality and safety costs (World Bank, 1997). Mountain roads are lined with memorials to dead motorists and pedestrians. Jianchu and Rana (2005) emphasizes the changing impact of geohazards with the vast extent of new roads in China’s mountainous interiors. Disasters formerly confined to the dispersed settlements in areas directly affected by debris flow or flood become extensive crises. Whole sets of valleys and regions are cut off. Dependence on arterial highways means ever-more extensive disruptions and shortages. Highland–lowland and transboundary relations, discussed below, become far more influential in losses and organized response.

The Human Ecology of Disaster Risk in Cold Mountainous RegionsClick to view larger

Figure 11. Roads into the hinterland of the North Patagonian Ice cap, southern Chile. (photo KH 2011)

The vulnerability of road transportation to cryospheric hazards is well known. Snowfall, drifts and whiteouts, freezing rain, avalanches, rock falls, debris flows, and flash floods are the bane of mountain roads, as is damage from frost heaving and unstable permafrost (Brunsden et al., 1975; Fort & Crossart, 2011; Goodwin, 2002). Exposure to extreme cold is a recurring problem after accidents and for road users caught in disasters. In fact, virtually all larger mountain disasters are now also transportation disasters. They bring sudden, widespread damage and blocking of roads. Isolation and inaccessibility are reinforced, but for societies adjusted to motorized communication (Fig. 12). Greater reliance on truck transport and buses brings more costly stoppages and higher fatalities, especially in winter or unseasonal weather.

The Human Ecology of Disaster Risk in Cold Mountainous RegionsClick to view larger

Figure 12. Debris flows from a summer rainstorm block the Karakoram highway near Gilgit, Northern Pakistan. (photo KH 2001)

In response, roads receive some of the largest public investments in risk-reducing measures. They are a main focus of cryosphere-related research, notably for slope stability and avalanche defenses (Fuchs, Keiler, & Sokratov, 2015). Safety measures involve tunnels, avalanche- and rockfall defenses, monitoring, salting, heavy equipment, and road crews to clear snow and other obstructions. In many wealthier countries, research and safety measures are a permanent responsibility of highway divisions or railway companies. Monitoring and data banks developed from normal operations have served important research initiatives on magnitude, frequency, and trends in geohazards (Bjerrum, 1968; Smith & McClung, 1997). For major arteries, huge numbers of personnel, even whole military engineering units, are permanently assigned to mountain roads. Some thousands of personnel are dedicated to keeping the trans-Himalayan Karakoram and Nepal-Tibet “Friendship” Highways and the Chile-Argentina trans-Andean Highway open. Presently, more than 400 workers are occupied to keep the Salang Pass and tunnel open, and to deal with wear and tear and damages from cryospheric and traffic conditions. In otherwise impoverished and neglected regions, high-profile road building can become the focus of academic research. Since the Karakoram Highway opened in the 1970s, more than a dozen research articles have addressed geohazards and disasters along it (Derbyshire, Fort, & Owen, 2001; Jones, Brunsden, & Goudie, 1983; Kreutzmann, 1991). Yet, while these mainly serve modern sectors, they affect everyone’s mobility (Kreutzmann, 2004).

Dangers to roads and their users receive most attention. However, in the mountains, road traffic itself brings threats to environments and specific disaster dangers for humans (Sidle & Ziegler, 2012). Along transport routes, they affect communities, other travelers, and ecosystems. Road construction and maintenance, not least the high use of explosives and heavy equipment, are substantial sources of anthropogenic erosion, destabilized slopes, and dumping. Apparently, road transport is the greatest source of air pollution in the Indian Himalaya, with diesel-fueled trucks singled out and, close behind, dust emissions from traffic using badly maintained roads (Headlines Himalaya, 2015). There is chronic disturbance and killing of wildlife. Roadside rest stops and service stations become sites of concentrated pollution, flammable materials, and dumping. In the MC good sanitation or disposal systems are rare. Vendors, squatters, and others working for or exploiting road users add to environmental degradation and people at risk.

Tunnels assume an ever-more important role in risk management and novel dangers. They offer gentler grades and straighter routes and risk-reducing strategies in steepland areas subject to frequent mass movements, snow storms, and severe winters. They can help avoid cryospheric hazards altogether. However, tunnels also draw large numbers of vehicles and passengers. When they happen, accidents can be calamitous. Tunnel disasters reveal special elements of risk and modernization in the MC. If relatively rare, their numbers and potential keep increasing (Table 3). The Salang Tunnel (see above) showed how problems can be magnified by traffic conditions—crowded buses, pollution, dangerous cargoes, and military convoys.

Table 3. Examples of Tunnel Disasters in Mountainous Areas


Tunnel, Type





Sierre, highway

Mar. 13, 2012

28 (24 injured)

School bus crashed into tunnel wall


Salang, raid

Feb. 8, 2010

170 (125 injured)

Snowstorm and avalanche blocked pass and tunnel access


Gotthard, highway

Oct. 24, 2001


Two truck collision and fire, casulaties mainly from smoke and CO; tunnel collapse


Kaprun, funicular rail

Nov. 11, 2000


Explosion and fire, skiers and snow boarders, going to Kitzsteinhorn Glacier


Tauern, highway

May 29, 1999


Major fire from gasline and paint can after semi-truck, crashed 2 cars and paint truck; 16 trucks and 24 passenger vehicles burned


Mont Blanc, highway

Mar. 24, 1999


Fire in refrigeration truck, others carrying flour and margarine, burned for 53 hours; toxic fumes, 34 vehicles burned


MÅBØ, highway

Aug. 15, 1988

16, some injured

Bus crash on route to Bergan


Nihonzaka, highway

July 11, 1979

7 deaths

Four large trucks and two cars collide, spilled fuel create mass fire; 231 more vehicles enter tunnel; 173 destroyed and 1 km of tunnel; fire not extinguished for 110 hours


Armi, Balvano, train

Mar. 2/3, 1944


Deaths mainly from CO poisoning


Torre Del Beirzo, rail

Jan. 3, 1944

500+ (officially 78)

Three trains collided inside tunnel, fire in coal train burned for two days; attempted cover-up

United States (Cascades)

Wellington, rail

Feb. 1910


Avalanches blocked and hit passenger and mail trains

Sources: Adapted from Ingason et al. (2015) and Maevski (2011).

Rail and road tunnels are having a second lease of life, notably in China, the Indian Himalaya, and the Andes. In Europe and wealthier countries elsewhere, there is work on megaprojects with much longer tunnels, more traffic lanes, or high-speed trains, essentially avoiding the MC. These are developments where highland–lowland and transboundary effects can be magnified and more costly.

School Disasters

Another mountain land stereotype is lack of education. National statistics may support this, especially with respect to girls and compared to the lowlands. Nevertheless, millions of mountain children are in school. Countless education facilities have been built to meet national development goals, often with international and charitable aid.

Recent disasters, however, reveal a perverse outcome—a widespread neglect of school safety. In the last decade or so, thousands of schools collapsed, some during earthquakes, but others under snow loads, on unstable slopes, or in high winds (Table 4). Thousands of children have been killed or injured. Thus, “education,” otherwise viewed positively, becomes a major risk factor and, obviously, of social origin. Poorly designed and sited buildings are the immediate reason, usually for children from the poorest homes. Verticality also intrudes, but most critically through neglect of local environmental knowledge and investigations. Yet few schools are built without official approval and oversight—evidently not always reliable. As a preventable risk, this ought to be unacceptable and its eradication a priority.

Table 4. Examples of School Losses in Mountain Land Disasters


Death Tollsa

Schools Destroyed


Ghorka, Nepal



90% of Ghorka district schools destroyed

Sichuan, China, 2008



Kashmir, 2005

17,000–20,000 students


Chi-Chi, Taiwan, 1999



870 schools damaged

Armenia, 1988

65,000 (2/3rds of total deaths).


32,000 children evacuated, severe PTSD among survivors

a. Figures are, at best, approximate indicators. Reported casualties in large disasters are typically rough and unreliable, as likely to underestimate as to exaggerate.

PTSD, posttraumatic stress disorder.

Sources: Adapted from Miller et al. (1993) and UNCRD (2009).

Global Interventions

The MC emerges here as by no means an independent or isolated entity. Relations with the world beyond are both a source and object of disaster risk, notably through highland–lowland relations and conflict.

Highland–Lowland Relations

The 2015 Nepal earthquake illustrates calamities in which devastating events affect the mountains, foothills, and nearby lowlands. Armero, Colombia, showed how distant lowlands can experience the worst damage from cryospheric hazards. The Salang Tunnel fire, or Belvedere Glacier surge, show how national and even international pressures and developments influence loss and response. In general, MC disasters can involve actions and priorities but also neglect or opportunism of or by extensive cultural, political, and economic worlds beyond the mountains.

Dangers from the mountains for downslope and lowland populations receive most notice—notably long-runout events. They create perennial problems of perception and interests. Whether or not upstream communities or states warn those at risk downstream can affect losses and generate conflict. Forty years ago the widely discussed “Himalayan Dilemma” blamed floods and siltation in the Indo-Gangetic plains on farmers, deforestation, and land degradation in the mountains (Eckholm, 1975). Ives and Messerli (1989) showed it was largely based on false or simplistic assumptions. Yet, the present time, the same view reappears in media releases after each flood season.

Too often ignored are the many impacts of downcountry people and decisions on mountain societies. Disaster vulnerability and responses reveal decisive roles of states and metropoles, the international community, and development initiatives. They are far more prevalent and threatening. In all, “global change” needs to be an integral and sensitive part of disaster-management strategies in the MC. Among these, the most severe impacts derive from armed conflict.

Armed Conflict and Militarized Responses

In the past 70 years, 9 of 10 international and civil wars have occurred partly or wholly in mountain lands (Libiszewski & Bächler, 1997; UNEP-WCMC, 2002, pp. 56–59). They include singularly intractable and lethal conflicts, from Afghanistan and Kashmir to Ethiopia and Peru. A high-altitude war between India and Pakistan continues around the Siachen Glacier and is decades old. Thousands of soldiers have died or been disabled, many of them men recruited from mountain communities. But very few are combat casualties. They have fallen to hypoxia and frostbite, encounters with snowstorms, debris flows, crevasses, and avalanches (Noorilhudah, 2012).

A side effect of militarism is the overwhelming reliance on military forces in disaster relief. This gives effective control to state, metropolitan, and international actors. It can certainly help resident communities. However, many reports show their concerns being ignored, their livelihoods undermined by outsiders and, not always sympathetic, troops (Carey, 2010; Hilhorst, 2013; Oliver-Smith, 1986).

Meanwhile, in these wars casualties are overwhelmingly civilian residents. Millions more have lost their livelihoods, and tens of millions are forcibly displaced. Ecosystem damages are widespread (UNEP, 2009). Impacts already exceed the worst anticipated from climate change and adversely affect adaptation to this as to other environmental threats (Hewitt, 1997, pp. 244–253).

That said, it is clear that today’s most widely discussed risk in the MC, as elsewhere, is climate change. It involves crucial highland–lowland relations, potentially violent upheavals, and exchanges. These matters are covered in a widely available and exponentially growing literature, and in other parts of this encyclopedia. Certain aspects need special emphasis in the MC: the anthropogenic role and a historical perspective on how adaptive stresses relate to past, widely fluctuating, cold conditions and related hazards.

Climate Change in the MC

Global warming is identified with widespread reduction of mountain glaciers and permafrost. Winters are shorter, as is duration of snow cover. In many places, extreme weather and related flood, landslide, and windstorm hazards are on the increase (Huggel et al., 2015). Major effects on cryospheric hazards are identified (Fort, 2015; Kääb et al., 2005). The scientific consensus has these threats getting much worse before conditions improve, if they do (IPCC, 2014).

Of course, the cold mountain are threatened, above all, by reckless energy uses of urban-industrialized societies (Marzeion et al., 2014), This is, at root, a lowland-to-highland risk. Climate adaptation is urged in the MC, and a range of useful adjustments can be made—if and when development plans accommodate them and, not least, marginalized indigenous economies have the freedom and resources to act. Even so, their fate depends far more on adaptations in the metropoles and populous lowlands, primarily big reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. As of January 2016, however, even with the new commitments of the UN COP 21 meetings, likely reductions appear inadequate. The most optimistic estimates have emissions growing for another three decades and several more decades before conditions could return even to the present harmful levels. During this time, global temperatures are expected to increase as are other assaults in the MC such as fallout of soot and other industrial pollutants. A growing consensus envisages that most mountain glaciers will disappear and unprecedented shifts in extreme weather will occur.

To return to the main theme, however, danger and adaptations continue to depend most critically upon the status of traditional, modern, and modernizing societies. Thus, rather than reducing assaults, Bury (2015) documents how retreating glaciers and declining permafrost help extend the frontiers of extractive industries, as mineral-rich rocks and placer deposits are exposed. Near and under glaciers of the high Andes, the Greenland and Inner Asian mountains, companies have begun to exploiting high concentrations of gold, copper, and precious stones. One result is accelerated ice loss through explosions and excavation and as mining dust and dirt intensify rates of melting (Brenning, 2008). The industries have a high demand for water and adversely affect water quality for communities downstream. Tailings ponds and dams are recurring sources of dam break floods that contaminate water supplies and soils. According to Bury the onslaught and dangers can only increase, given current practices, expanding markets, and continued climate warming.

Ecologies of Transition

Less often remarked is how, with respect to adaptation by highland communities, global warming is superimposed on legacies and experiences of past climate changes. In the Quaternary, the extent of the MC and cold conditions have repeatedly expanded and contracted. Landscapes and ecology record, in particular, large changes in ice covers and related earth surface processes, expansions, contractions, and extinctions of flora and fauna. What needs emphasis is how impacts of climate changes are far from instantaneous or simple. Adjustments in terrains, ecosystems, and human activities involve a spectrum of lag times. Some are quite rapid, others take millennia. Despite the urgency of present global warming, its implications for disaster risk are far from straightforward and must be placed in perspectives of planetary and human history. Past experience and disasters enter into present-day adaptive options.

Cooling: The Little Ice Age

Modern climate awareness and adaptations arose within the Little Ice Age (LIA). It occurred between the 14th and late 19th or early 20th centuries; possibly the strongest episode of global cooling since the last major glaciation (Grove, 1988). It brought severe distress from cryospheric hazards. Destructive events were documented worldwide, especially crop failures and related starvation and disease outbreaks (Le Roy Ladurie, 1988). Countless settlements and formerly productive croplands were abandoned to snow, avalanches, and advancing glaciers, as were many mountain pastures and well-traveled routes and passes. There were repeated famines and epidemics. Harvests were lost to untimely frost, blights, and pests.

All this coincided with huge historical changes identified with modernization and European imperial expansions. Along with incomplete records, that makes it difficult to exactly compare the LIA and today. Without doubt, however, in most of the MC there were more and stronger cryospheric hazards. Nearly all the “catastrophic avalanches” listed by Whiteman (2011, pp. 212–213) are from the LIA, as are the most destructive GLOFs on record (Benn & Evans, 1998; Hewitt, 2014; Grove, 1988; Mason, 1935; Thorrarinson, 1956). Carey’s (2010) pioneering work in the Cordilliera Blanca, Peru, does show recent glacier retreat bringing unprecedented threats from GLOFs or alluviones. He also mentions some very large events in previous centuries and stresses the role of historical changes in social and political constraints. In the trans-Himalayan upper Indus Basin, by far the largest and greatest numbers of known disastrous GLOFs occurred before 1930 and were related to LIA glacier advances (Hewitt & Liu, 2010). The two largest landslide dam-break floods on record were in 1841 and 1858 (Hewitt, 2011).

In all, the LIA brought defining experiences and impacts of cryospheric hazards throughout the MC and for the emerging modern world. Today’s vision of diminishing glaciers and snow cover is very disturbing but, thus far, has not brought as dangerous and costly disasters as the LIA. It may well do so as the warmest conditions in human history are surpassed and if the MC is entirely lost. From an adaptive point of view, this comprises a reversal of the conditions that generations of mountain communities and ecosystems had confronted. And the LIA was only the latest among even larger changes in cold environments and the MC.

Paraglacial Perils

The greatest legacies of cryosphere-related climate change derive from Quaternary glaciations, especially the last major expansion (Calkin, 1995). At its height, glacier ice covered most of what was defined above as the extended or comprehensive MC and into extensive lowlands beyond that. Mountain ranges presently ice-free were covered in ice caps and ice sheets. Moreover, while the ice has gone, its influence has not. In the mountains, a variety of major geohazards arise from postglacial adjustments of landscapes to ice loss (Kääb et al., 2005). Ongoing changes vary from isostatic rebound of formerly ice-loaded terrain to dust storms in valleys with abundant glacial sediments and drier climates. The term paraglacial1 has come to identify continuing impacts of glaciation after deglaciation (Church & Ryder, 1972; Ryder, 1971). An abundance of glacial sediments that, sooner or later, are reworked and transferred down valley involve paraglacial sedimentation with potentially dangerous consequences for human land uses or magnified hazards such as mud and debris flows.

Similarly, the dangers from current warming and decline in permafrost, widely discussed as MC hazards, cannot be entirely separated from paraglacial components including the present extent and status of permafrost, related processes and effects of global warming, but also its late Quaternary history (French, 2007; Smith & Riseborough, 2002). It has also been realized that paraglacial conditions can be critical for massive rock slope failures. Glacially oversteepened mountain walls adjust to ice-free conditions over centuries or millennia with delayed instabilities leading directly to catastrophic failures or through landslides triggered by earthquake or rainstorm (Ballantyne, 2002; Dadson & Church, 2005; Knight & Harrison, 2009). Thousands of catastrophic landslides are now identified in the MC of European, High Asian, Andean, and North American ranges and attributed partly or wholly to paraglacial responses in formerly glacierized valleys (Hauser, 2002). They include many of the most destructive rockslide disasters in modern times (Hewitt, 2009; Margottini, Canuti, & Sassa, 2013) and large landslide dams causing dangerous inundation or subsequent destructive dam break floods (Evans, Hermanns, Strom, & Scarascia-Mugnozza, 2011). In various mountain ranges such large rockslides are observed descending onto existing glaciers, with dramatic and sometimes disastrous effects (Deline, Hewitt, Reznichenko, & Shugar, 2014).

In general, MC landscapes and ecology are not simply adjusting to changes in present climates and recent human actions. They are in transition through lagged responses to former Quaternary conditions and how societies adjusted to them. However, to repeat, where not ignored detailed histories reveal how socio-economic and cultural systems, and their priorities, are more influential in how communities have adapted, failed, or seem likely to do so in future (Oliver-Smith, 1999).

Concluding Remarks: Toward Disaster Risk Reduction

The Sendai Framework (2015–2030) prioritizes disaster risk reduction (DRR). To achieve this it argues for a people-centered, preventive approach. Emphasis is on conditions that prefigure disaster, especially how, and how well, societies are adapted to prevailing conditions and likely extremes, their readiness and capacities to deal with anticipated changes. It mainly promotes actions that reduce risk on the ground and in communities before emergencies. Geophysical hazards must be addressed, monitored, and predicted where possible. However, this will only serve DRR through an equal focus on everyday safe communities, in turn dependent upon the social “drivers” of human exposure, vulnerability and protection, identified above (Wisner, 1993).

Those that apply to large parts of MC involve people with unusually high poverty rates, joblessness, poor health, and low life expectancy; conditions abetted by weak or absent public health and safety systems, absent funding for safe buildings, services, and transportation, or weak enforcement. In such contexts, humanitarian efforts must begin by improving everyday safety and health, with economic uplift, and higher-quality local facilities. The preconditions of social vulnerability must be addressed, including how to enhance community resilience. and implement protections inspired by successful ones elsewhere.

Instead, in almost all countries the greatest investments and readiness go to emergency measures after the fact, measures funded by and based mainly on centralized and centrally controlled security forces, professional agencies, and, increasingly, for-profit security companies (Hewitt, 2016; Hilhorst, 2013; Kellett & Caravani, 2013). These are surely one necessary aspect of modern, public and international readiness. However, as in the 2015 Nepal disaster, they tend to neglect, or arrive late in, the dispersed, small-scale settlements and land uses of most MC communities. Assessments showing how and why the purely emergency response framework is unbalanced and counterproductive, have been around for some decades. So have well-known alternatives (Blaikie et al., 1994; White, 1964; Wijkman & Timberlake, 1984). For DRR, these options require investing in social capacities and safe practices, in monitoring, warning, and escape strategies—again before disaster. They need to be available, especially, for unusually vulnerable communities, and as part of long-term, broad spectrum safety measures.

However, for most mountain dwellers the great problem is not what they could or would like to do but lack of the power and opportunities required (Ives, 1997). Thus, another main goal of the Sendai process is to “adequately take account of people’s cultures, beliefs and attitudes in relation to risk” (IFRC, 2015, p. 8). In the MC, it is especially relevant for the plight of more traditional or indigenous peoples. Giving a voice to those at risk, and according to their degree of risk, requires a more inclusive and fair process (Ericson & Doyle, 2003). As described elsewhere, this hinges, finally, on responsible and inclusive governance (Middleton & O’Keefe, 1998). Social initiatives and movements are needed that encourage participatory responses, cooperative and sharing models. Technical competence and capabilities are surely important. In preventive fields such as public health, fire, disease, or accident prevention, critical unbiased science has played a basic role—but that does not necessarily lead to benefits, at least for those most at risk. Improvements rarely happen without addressing their predicaments or, indeed, without their participation (Carmalt & Dale, 2012).

For the MC it is necessary to promote cultures of precaution and prevention, especially in marginalized and neglected regions, impoverished rural communities, or congested districts of expanding cities. Lives are unlikely to become safer unless risk assessments and actions respect the connectedness of people, cultures, and habitats. And this is seen to require broad ecological principles for living and acting with nature, rather than attempting to control or make war on it. Such principles inform the Sendai process and align practice with, say, the Code of Conduct of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC, 2015). Ultimately it depends upon social justice. Stated bluntly, ethics come first.


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(1.) Not to be confused with periglacial, referring to landscapes subject to frigid temperatures or frequent freeze-thaw, typically around and beyond glaciers.