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What does the Future hold for the Glaciated and High Mountain World?

As a mountaineer, you will surely care about the natural environment and appreciate the pristine, relatively unspoilt beauty of many mountain wildernesses. It is also likely that you want future generations to be able to appreciate the beauty and majesty of those environments. But what is the likelihood of that happening and what does the future hold for the glaciated and high mountain world?

 

In 2015, 196 parties signed up to a historic accord, the Paris Climate Agreement, with the aim of limiting global warming to less than 2 degrees above pre-industrial and preferably below 1.5 degrees. These numbers are not arbitrary. In the case of the frozen world (the cryosphere), overshooting 1.5⁰ C will result in passing irreversible and dangerous thresholds (www.50x30.net) and we are already at 1.1⁰ C of warming. That might not sound like much but global ecosystems, the cryosphere and humans are in a delicate balance with the rest of the climate system with reinforcing feedbacks that amplify these seemingly small changes to atmospheric temperatures. It is, however, not just the magnitude but also the rate at which humans are modifying the climate system that is a problem.

The graph above shows CO2 concentrations (blue) in the atmosphere alongside atmospheric temperature (red) for the last 800,000 years. CO2 levels have not been as high as they are now for at least 3 million years and are increasing at a rate that is unprecedented in the ice core records such as the one above. The present-day temperature increase lags behind CO2 as the climate responds to the unprecedented rise in greenhouse gases. Hence, even if we stopped burning fossil fuels tomorrow, the red line would carry on upwards. We are entering new and uncharted territory for the climate system. National commitments to meet the Paris Agreement (called NDCs) currently commit us to warming of about 3⁰ C so are well below the threshold to limit catastrophic climate breakdown.

Mountain glaciers around the world are currently receding at an unprecedented rate since the start of the Industrial Revolution and the latest research identifies human-induced climate warming as almost entirely responsible (Roe et al., 2021). A paper published in April 2021 provides the most detailed and complete picture of glacier wastage over the last two decades from over 1 million satellite images and shows how mass loss has been accelerating during this time for most of the 200,000 plus glaciers around the world (Hugonnet et al., 2021). If we continue on our current trajectory, the latest projections indicate that over half of mountain glacier ice will have melted and for low latitude and lower altitude regions they will be almost completed gone by the end of the century (Shannon et al., 2019). By 2050, Western Canada and the USA (excluding Alaska), central Europe and parts of Asia could be completely void of glaciers alongside many other damaging impacts.


The fate of one small glacier in the Pyrenees that survived since before Roman times but has now almost completely disappeared (Moreno et al., 2021).
On the left is the pre-industrial reconstruction of extent and the right the present-day remnant parts.

That is why, for example, the UK government aims to put into law a reduction of 78% in CO2 emissions by 2035, which, for the first time includes our share of international aviation and shipping. That is the kind of commitment required to stand a fighting chance of not overshooting 1.5⁰ C (again see www.50x30.net). To achieve that reduction is a huge challenge but, just like anything in life, if you don’t know where you’re going you’re unlikely to ever get there. It will require legislation and profound changes to the way we operate but it will also require change at the individual level and each of us can help protect what we cherish for future generations. We need to reduce emissions by 50% by 2030 (relative to 2010) to avoid a dangerous overshoot. That means about a 6-7% reduction per year which is roughly what happened in 2020 during a global pandemic (it’s more than 5% because it’s relative to 2010 values). If each of us reduced our flights, car-miles, consumption and waste by that amount a year we can make a difference. Just like one nurse or doctor cannot change the course of the current pandemic, collectively they can save millions of lives. Collectively, we can do the same for the planet we live on and the mountain environments we care so much about, value and cherish.

 

This article was written by Alpine Club Green Group member Jonathan Bamber, Professor of Glaciology & Earth Observation at the University of Bristol and former President of the European Geosciences Union.

It first appeared in the Alpine Club Newsletter of March 2022.