Space & Innovation

Climate Change Actually Is Moving Mountains

It's a feedback loop in which mountains simultaneously alter the climate. Continue reading →

You've heard about how climate change can force trees, animals and fish to relocate when dealing with temperature shifts. But here's a new one for you. Climate actually helps move mountains and vice-versa: Mountains influence climate as well.

For millions of years, global climate shifts altered the structure and internal movement of mountain ranges, and in turn, the resulting development of glaciers and erosion has enabled mountains to alter the local climate around them.

Earth's Major Tectonic Plates May Be Speeding Up

The extent of that feedback loop is documented in a new study on the St. Elias Mountain Range, which is located along the the cost of northwest Canada and southeastern Alaska. The study, led by University of Cincinnati geologist Eva Enkelmann, was published in Geophysical Research Letters and also presented at the Geological Society of America's recent annual meeting in Baltimore.

"To understanding how mountain structures evolve through geologic time is no quick task because we are talking millions of years," Enkelmann said in a press release. "There are two primary processes that result in the building and eroding of mountains and those processes are interacting."

The way a mountain range moves and behaves topographically can also change and affect its local climate by redirecting wind and precipitation. The repercussions of these changes can accelerate the erosion and tectonic seismic activity of that mountain range.

Will Climate Change Affect Fall Colors?

The St. Elias range, the highest coastal mountains on the planet, illustrate this. Precipitation is high in the southern end of the range, which results in erosion and material coming off the southern flanks of the range. So as climate change influences the erosion, that can produce a tectonic shift.

That process has been predicted by past studies. But Enkelmann provided stronger evidence by gathering data to show how a rapid exhumation -- an uplift of rocks -- occurred in the central part of the mountain range between 2 and 4 million years ago. That back-and-forth effect between erosion and internal tectonic shifting resulted in a large amount of rock moving up toward the surface very rapidly.

As Enkelmann noted, the process is still at work. Enkelmann said in a statement that glaciers today are wet-based and are moving, very aggressively eroding material around and out, and in the case of her observation, into the Gulf of Alaska. The tectonic forces -- internal plates moving toward one another -- continue to move toward Alaska, get pushed underneath and the sediment on top is piling up above the Yakutat plate.

The St. Elias mountain range

It's becoming increasingly apparent that we're not going to be able to avoid climate change and its potentially catastrophic effects, such as rising sea levels, more violent storms and droughts. So across the world, people are trying to rebuild to be more resilient in the face of what's to come. Here are some of the most ingenious designs for climate-proofing. After Hurricane Sandy battered New York City and surrounding communities in 2012, the U.S. government launched the Rebuild By Design competition to help make the region more resilient. One winning proposal, the BIG U plan, would build an elevated berm around 10 miles of low-lying lower Manhattan that would not only block floodwaters, but serve as a green space recreation area.

10 Nasty Surprises From Climate Change

Climate change could also alter precipitation patterns and result in potentially ruinous droughts as well. One possible solution: Condensation towers, such as this one envisioned by then-University of Kansas architect and computer scientist Fritz Helbert in 2012, could capture moisture from the atmosphere.

Here Are 10 Striking Images Of Future Sea Levels

In other places, climate change already is causing increased rainfall. The Velopark, part of London's Olympic complex, has a roof that's designed to harvest rainwater for purification and reuse as drinking water.

10 Signs Climate Change Is Already Happening

The low-lying Netherlands already has a lot of experience dealing with flooding. The city of Rotterdam is building floating, bubble-domed structures that would be impervious to storms and rise with the floodwaters.

11 Bizarre Sources for Alternative Energy

Singapore's Garden by the Bay has "super trees" -- vertical gardens that collect solar energy, harvest rainwater and work as a natural cooling system as the planet's temperature rises.

In Thailand, architecture firm Site-Specific Co Ltd. designed this "amphibious house" for Thailand's National Housing Authority, which has steel steel pontoons filled with Styrofoam in the foundation. The design would enable houses and apartment buildings to rise up to 6 feet off the ground during flooding.

10 Best Places to Harness Solar Power