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Mountain Observatories: Status and Prospects for Enhancing and Connecting a Global Community

This paper reviews the trends and challenges of socioenvironmental monitoring in the mountains and proposes principles and ways of supporting, developing and connecting mountain observatories
Multiple Authors
Mountain range in Kazakhstan
This article features work by Adaptation at Altitude Programme Partners MRI. Read their news release on this publication here. This work has been complemented and enabled by the Global Network for Observations and Information in Mountain Environments and its development of inventories of in situ observational infrastructure and metadata related to open datasets and data portals.


Mountains are among the world’s most impressive landscapes and are vital to humanity. They provide valuable environmental functions that underpin key ecosystem goods and services, a crucial supporting determinant for sustainable development potential. Mountain landscapes, characterized by diverse natural and managed systems (eg agricultural land), support biocultural diversity, food and energy security, tourism and recreation, and have spiritual and intrinsic values.

Mountain environments are expected to experience particularly wide-ranging effects from current global climate change. Interactions among people, ecosystems, and environments within mountain systems, and between mountains and other systems, urgently require integrated observation.

Mountain observatories are sites, networks of sites, or data-rich regions where multidisciplinary, integrated observations of biophysical and human environments are conducted over a lengthy period of time in consistent ways, according to established protocols using both in situ and remote observations. The purpose of mountain observatories is to evaluate the current state of mountain systems and build up an understanding that captures past variations and charts future physical, biological, and social changes in mountain environments.

This paper: (1) provides a brief review of the current trends and challenges of socioenvironmental monitoring in the mountains, and available networks and products; (2) assesses challenges for implementing an integrative and holistic approach to monitoring socioenvironmental systems; and (3) proposes principles and ways of supporting the development and connection of mountain observatories.

The text below provides a summary of the open access paper “Mountain Observatories: Status and Prospects for Enhancing and Connecting a Global Community” published in Mountain Research and Development in June 2021. For much more detail you can read the full paper here. This open access article is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (http:// Please credit the authors and the full source.

Monitoring in the mountains: status quo

Evolving methods of monitoring mountain environments

Currently, there are 2 contrasting trends in environmental monitoring in mountainous regions. On the one hand, the density of in situ monitoring sites is declining, as they are costly and difficult to maintain in high-elevation environments. On the other hand, the availability of remotesensing data with high spatial, temporal, and spectral resolution is increasing. Furthermore, the availability and use of proxy data based on paleoenvironmental reconstructions of past mountain environments are additional sources of information that have seen important developments lately.

In situ observations: spatial limitations and technological opportunities

There is poor availability of long-term, homogeneous and comparable ground-based observations in most mountainous regions outside Western Europe and North America. The density of high-elevation meteorological stations and hydrological gauging sites with long-term measurements (eg over 50 years) conducted manually has declined in many regions since the 1980s (see figure below, figure 2 in the paper, p. 4). This is particularly true in the post-Soviet countries, and also in Africa and in the tropical Andes.

The lack of spatiotemporal data coverage in the mountains results in crucial knowledge gaps and hampers our ability to validate remote-sensing data and models and address practical challenges.

Increasing role of remote sensing in addressing limitations:

Remote sensing in general, and remote sensing from space in particular, helps to alleviate logistical challenges of high-elevation monitoring. It helps to provide multiscale and multithematic information obtained in a consistent way over large areas. It is frequently presented as a solution to the problem of declining in situ observations.

The monitoring of mountain environments using remote sensing has expanded significantly since the 1980s and has helped to fill a significant data void, especially in developing countries and in remote regions. Remote sensing, however, has several important limitations when used on its own:

  1. Remote-sensing products are inherently limited in their temporal coverage and are too short to provide a comprehensive long-term monitoring perspective—the world did not start in the 1970s!
  2. Despite recent advances, some environmental characteristics still cannot be monitored from space or even from unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).
  3. Challenges specific to mountain environments. These range from spatial resolution, which is still too low for many applications, and technical problems, associated with complex mountainous topography and their radiative properties, to lack of quality ground-control data.

Use of proxy data and paleoreconstructions

Understanding how terrestrial ecosystems change at global scales is a fundamental challenge that demands datasets with extensive temporal depth and wide spatial coverage. Paleoclimatic, paleoecological, and paleoenvironmental proxy data are extensively used to reconstruct past changes over a range of different timescales and to examine the changing relationships between people and the environment.

Thematic gaps and suitability of the available datasets

Three important points emerge from this analysis:

  1. Many datasets (eg TRMM, GPM, SMOS, SMAP, CRUTEM4) are not mountain-specific and are not designed to address a concept of large change (eg in temperature, precipitation, species, etc) over a fine spatial scale.
  2. While some datasets are easily accessible (eg via Randolph Glacier Inventory [RGI] and WGMS), many regional datasets, both historical and contemporary, remain within institutions and are not shared. Better knowledge about existing datasets, data access, and data rescue is required.
  3. Most of the above discussion concerns monitoring of the physical environment. Very few observatories and networks combine monitoring of the natural environment with the assessment of socioeconomic and cultural impacts and associated indicators, even though this is important to develop future scenarios of environmental and socioeconomic change.

The topography of mountains implies that upstream and downstream regions are connected in terms of impacts, most notably by gravity-driven water and mass flows. While glacier lakes are often reasonably well monitored, potential or actual impacts of related hazards are often monitored poorly in the absence of socioeconomic data and trends other than national census data.

Efforts to provide a robust basis for systematic, comparable, and coordinated observation frameworks incorporating social dimensions need to capture the unique sociocultural place-based conditions while allowing for cross-comparisons within and across locations and scales.

Finally, citizen science can also contribute to generating and integrating diverse observation data, complementing instrumental and modeling efforts.

Mountain observatories: quo vadis?

The Mountain Observatories initiative, coordinated by the MRI Mountain Observatory Working Group, is expected to build on and go beyond the remits of traditional, highly specialized monitoring programs operating in mountainous regions. The aims and remits of the initiative are listed in the boxes below (Boxes 1 and 2 in the paper, p. 10).

The MRI Mountain Observatories Working Group, working closely with GEO Mountains, will support the development of regional and eventually global networks of mountain observatories by focusing on 3 tasks:

  1. The formulation of problems at regional network level, enabling network participants to express their opinion on the agenda of the Mountain Observatories initiative and adjust it to their needs. At this stage, a program of multithematic data collection along mountain gradients in different mountain regions will be created.
  2. Continue the development of metrics and indicators to be monitored by mountain observatories to ensure consistency and comparability of data in collaboration with GEO Mountains and Global Climate Observing System (GCOS) programs and thematic networks.
  3. Provide information about mountain observatories via interactive websites to give access to metadata and, in some cases, navigate users to individual observatories and networks.


Two opposing trends were identified: reduction in high-elevation in situ observations and increase in the coverage and sophistication of remote sensing. The expansion of automated measurements partly alleviates the lack of in situ observations, but the datasets they generate are often short-lived and inconsistent in time and methods, and there is no database that would compile at least metadata for these measurements.

Most observations retain thematic foci, and integrated, holistic observations are still a rarity in the mountainous regions. The MRI Mountain Observatories Working Group, working in close collaboration with GEO Mountains, as well as researchers and practitioners from various mountain regions in Asia, Africa, and the tropical Andes, aims to facilitate the development of multithematic mountain observatories.

Suggested citation

Maria Shahgedanova, Carolina Adler, Aster Gebrekirstos, H. Ricardo Grau, Christian Huggel, Robert Marchant, Nicholas Pepin, Veerle Vanacker, Daniel Viviroli, & Mathias Vuille. (2021). Mountain Observatories: Status and Prospects for Enhancing and Connecting a Global Community. Mountain Research and Development, 41(2), A1.

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