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1 November 2003 MRI Newsletter 2: Global Change Research in UNESCO Mountain Biosphere Reserves
Astrid Björnsen Gurung, Thomas Schaaf
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The Mountain Research Initiative (MRI) and UNESCO are cooperating on developing a strategy for implementing global change research in mountain Biosphere Reserves around the world. The objective is to provide an integrative research framework for regional interdisciplinary studies that address the causes and impacts of environmental and socioeconomic changes in the mountain Biosphere Reserves.

The anticipated global change of the 21st century will have serious repercussions on fragile mountain ecosystems. Change will not only affect the socioeconomic conditions of mountain people but also of many downstream communities that depend upon the flow of goods and services from mountain regions. Changing precipitation regimes, increased water runoff, reduced ice and snow storage capacities, changing frequency and magnitude of mass events, and a general increase in natural disasters in mountains will be some of the consequences of global change. Moreover, rising temperatures will shift the snow, vegetation, and tree lines in mountains and affect species habitats, populations, and distribution. Mountain people will have to cope with these drastic changes. This may be particularly difficult in developing countries, where marginalized mountain societies often depend on limited mountain resources for their livelihood. The severity of the anticipated changes will dictate their response strategies, ranging from adaptation to outright emigration.

Innovative strategies will be needed to address the potential impacts and consequences of global change in mountain regions and to identify the best approaches for effectively mitigating the impact of climate change. These strategies will not only need to integrate research within the physical sciences but must also incorporate research efforts from the social sciences.

Mountain Research Initiative—Man and the Biosphere's cooperative research program

Linking ongoing global change research in mountain areas with the existing UNESCO program on Man and the Biosphere (MAB) is a promising approach for coordinating and steering fragmented research activities. Within the framework of UNESCO's MAB program, mountain regions play a prominent role. They host numerous internationally recognized biosphere reserves (BRs) nominated by national governments. In many ways UNESCO mountain BRs provide ideal natural global change laboratories:

  • Zonation: While the protected core areas offer undisturbed ecosystems for studying the direct environmental impacts of climate change, the lower-elevation buffer and transition zones that are more strongly influenced by human activities provide ideal socioeconomic and environmental gradients for comparative studies.

  • Long-term research sites: BRs encourage research. For instance, they provide long-term security for permanent plots and monitoring activities that are necessary for distinguishing longer-term trends of climate change from the noise of short-term variability. BRs also allow for interdisciplinary research and monitoring, comparative studies, and information exchange. As such, they offer a growing database on which to build new hypotheses and experiments.

  • Logistic framework: Apart from focusing on conservation and development, each BR fulfills a logistic function in providing support for research, monitoring, education, and information exchange related to conservation and development.

  • Comparative studies: Lastly, the wide and varied distribution of mountain BRs across the globe provides opportunities to compare regional studies and analyze regional differentiation in environmental processes of change. Apart from changing environmental conditions along mountain slopes, changes also occur in socioeconomic conditions, land use and land management practices, resource exploitation, and the appeal of mountain regions for tourism.

Benefits from the partnership

Both MRI and UNESCO MAB realize significant added value from a cooperative research program. The MRI network of global change researchers clearly benefits from the UNESCO MAB infrastructure and from the valuable experience gained by UNESCO MAB concerning global change issues in the many mountain BRs (eg, on ecological processes, biological diversity, or traditional knowledge). And vice versa, the UNESCO MAB program benefits from intensified and coordinated global change research in the mountain BRs. The establishment of MRI research programs within BRs strengthens the reserves' significance, contributes to long-term monitoring of natural and human-induced environmental change, and focuses the experience of both the global change scientific community and the MRI network on mountain BR issues. The expected outcome from such an overarching research framework can be summarized as follows:

  • The project provides a valuable template for research projects geared towards elucidating, assessing, and predicting global change processes in mountain regions in general and their consequences for nature and humanity.

  • This global partnership facilitates the development of an observatory network in mountain BRs that provides an “early warning” system for detecting global change impacts, both in the protected core areas and surrounding buffer zones and transition areas.

  • Collaboration between scientists and BR managers from all over the world stimulates in-depth reflection and discussion about our common future and facilitates the exchange of knowledge between North and South. Conducting research activities in inhabited development zones of the BRs calls for fairness: a participatory approach and the delegation of responsibility and authority to the various stakeholders, especially women, are of utmost importance.

  • Through such an integrated research framework, a critical mass of researchers from separate disciplines can be attained to link up research activities and explore and develop strategies resulting in integrated, coordinated, and consistent activities. The BR managers' involvement is crucial for developing effective and applied strategies acceptable to mountain people whose livelihoods may be affected.

  • Policymakers and government agencies obtain important decision-making tools from information concerning, for instance, the extent of degradation of mountain resources, interactions between alternative resource management approaches, and regional trajectories of global change. The understanding gained from BRs offers enhanced technical and institutional capabilities for sustainable natural resource management.

  • Demonstrating the practical benefits from global change research helps to procure greater public support.

  • Furthermore, these activities serve as working examples to explore how natural resources can be managed within sustainable limits at the local and regional levels, and what institutional and legal mechanisms are needed to achieve this.

To sum up, global change research in BRs enables countries to meet their obligations under international conventions, such as those on biological diversity, desertification, and Agenda 21.

Selection of 25 mountain BRs

Of the 411 MAB BRs, more than 40% are situated in mountain regions widely distributed in 40 countries around the world. Given the large number of mountain BRs, it will be necessary to focus initial efforts on a few carefully selected “case study” BRs. Twenty-five mountain BRs have been identified that (1) represent most of the world's major mountain ranges, (2) span a large altitudinal gradient, (3) represent diverse physical and socio-economic settings, and (4) host ongoing research programs representing one or more of the MRI's activities. It is envisioned that the project will expand as resources become available to include a much more inclusive network of mountain BRs.


The components of the implementation plan will be assembled during a workshop scheduled for November 2003 in the Entlebuch Biosphere Reserve, Switzerland. The primary objectives for the workshop are:

  1. To review the state of global change research (natural, social, cultural, economic, and political sciences) in a range of mountain BRs that could be used as pilot study areas for implementing the activities defined by the MRI.

  2. To refine and prioritize MRI activities at an operational level.

  3. To identify gaps in coverage and methodological problems with respect to global change research in mountain BRs.

  4. To provide guidelines for implementing, fostering and coordinating integrated global change research in mountain BRs around the world, with a view towards general applicability in mountain regions.


November snow on the Jungfrau–Aletsch–Bietschhorn World Heritage Site in Switzerland; view from the northwest. (Photo by Mel Reasoner)

Astrid Björnsen Gurung and Thomas Schaaf "MRI Newsletter 2: Global Change Research in UNESCO Mountain Biosphere Reserves," Mountain Research and Development 23(4), 376-377, (1 November 2003).[0376:MNGCRI]2.0.CO;2
Published: 1 November 2003
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