Mountain Geomorphology, edited by Phil Owens and Olav Slaymaker. London, United Kingdom: Edward Arnold, 2004. v + 313 pp. £19.99. ISBN 0-340-76417-1.
In the introduction, the editors of this book point out that the worldwide total area covered by mountains is about 3.58 million km2, representing around 24% of the global land area. Approximately 12% of the human population is believed to live in these environments. In the light of these figures it seems remarkable that the general topic of mountain geomorphology has been so thoroughly neglected in the past. The publication under review is unusually reasonably priced and approachable and well fills this key niche.
The book consists of 12 chapters, organized into 5 thematic sections. The first contains a single chapter by the editors that provides a general overview on mountain geomorphology. It seeks to summarize why mountain science is so important and attempts to review the range of approaches that can be used to classify mountain geomorphology. This chapter will prove to be of immense use to undergraduate and postgraduate students working in mountain areas, as it provides an insight into the important contexts within which upland research is situated.
The second section is entitled “Historical Mountain Geomorphology,” a title that seems a little strange, given that the 3 chapters essentially examine the large-scale tectonic-geomorphic evolution of mountain chains. The approach is logical: the first chapter deals with global mountain systems (inevitably with an emphasis on tectonically active environments), the second reviews passive margins, and the third represents a more detailed analysis of one particular dynamic mountain chain (that of New Zealand). All 3 chapters provide a good synthesis, guided primarily by an approach that melds locationally-driven examples with a conceptual approach. It is perhaps disappointing to see that the chapter on global mountain systems makes relatively scant use of some of the exciting recent work on mountain evolution (for example in the Himalayas), tending to rely a little too much on texts dating back some 10 years. However, the chapter remains informative and interesting, and provides an excellent framework. Chapter 3 on passive continental margins has been written by Cliff Ollier, who is well-known for his controversial theories on the evolution of mountain chains. He provides an interesting review of theories and models of passive margin mountain belts, seeking not to promote a single, controversial hypothesis but instead to outline how much uncertainty remains. The comment in the conclusion that “at present our imagination and models seem to be running ahead of accepted basic information” is well-made and appropriate, and may indeed well apply far beyond passive margin mountain areas. The final chapter in this section focuses on the mountains of New Zealand, providing a nice counterpoint to the previous 2 chapters by examining in detail the synthesis between models and field data. This chapter emphasizes the role of erosion and deposition in driving uplift processes, which is welcome and timely.
The third section, entitled “Functional Mountain Geomorphology,” includes 4 papers. The first 2 examine processes on a conceptual basis. Chapter 5 examines the nature of mountain belt erosion, including very recent ideas (many of which have been proposed in papers by the chapter's authors) that link sediment production to mountain evolution. In the conclusion of this insightful review, the authors give a useful outlook on where this science needs to focus in the future. Similarly, Chapter 6, which examines chemical denudation in mountain chains, also provides a fine overview of this important but neglected topic, and highlights the need to increase the number of studies quantifying chemical denudation. Usefully, the author specifies areas needing attention and the approaches that might be used to generate the necessary data. One hopes that this will inspire a range of work in this area. Unfortunately, the following 2 chapters fit the overall structure of the book less well. The first is a rather detailed study of hydrology and mass movements in the mountains of Japan. Compared with most other chapters in the book, the information seems rather too specific, with insufficient emphasis placed on the importance of our understanding these processes with regard to other locations. Chapter 8 examines glacial lake outburst floods (GLOFs). Whilst there is little doubt that this is an important and interesting topic, and that the chapter is well-written, a whole chapter on this topic does seem a little out of place when, for example, there is no chapter on mountain rivers.
The fourth section, consisting of 3 chapters, moves into the realm of “Applied Mountain Geomorphology.” Again, the section title seems a little peculiar given that all 3 chapters actually focus upon geomorphic hazards in upland areas, with no coverage of other aspects of applied geomorphology. In Chapter 9, Ken Hewitt provides a welcome and well-structured review of the general topic of geomorphological hazards in mountain environments. This chapter should be required reading for students interested in upland areas. Extensive use is made of the author's experience in the Karakoram, yielding a section that highlights the general issues yet still manages to unpick some of the complexity of real world systems. Chapter 10 examines the mountain hazards of China. There is little doubt that China has some of the most geomorphologically dynamic mountains on Earth. A chapter illustrating the range of impacts associated with these phenomena and the approaches that are being used to mitigate them, is thus very useful. Chapter 11 rather ambitiously seeks to cover the range of hazards associated with volcanoes. The author provides a useful review, but given the large scope of the topic, coverage is inevitably quite light in detail at times. However, the chapter contains a great number of references, making it easy to get further detail if required.
Part 5 comprises a single chapter that deals with mountain geomorphology in the context of global environmental change. Again, the scope of material to be covered is huge. However, the authors put forward a cogent argument that studies of mountain geomorphology represent an important part of the analysis of global environmental change in terms of both the role that mountains play in determining the nature of change, and the sensitivity of mountains to the effects of natural and/or anthropogenic changes. Thus, the chapter provides both a useful overview of the previous sections and a key pointer to the future of the science.
Overall, the book is a good addition to the existing literature on mountains, and some of the less location-specific chapters will prove to be very useful to undergraduates and researchers. As with many edited books, it suffers a little from the broad range of approaches that the authors have used to compile the chapters. In addition, there are some notable gaps in coverage, especially on the fluvial and hydrological side. Thus, this book perhaps fails to completely fill the market gap in terms of a good, comprehensive mountain geomorphology textbook. However, in the preface the editors suggest that the aim of the book was to “encourage and inspire students and scientists:” there is little doubt that this aim has been achieved.