UBC Faculty Research and Publications

Robust Adaptation Research in High Mountains: Integrating the Scientific, Social, and Ecological Dimensions of Glacio-Hydrological Change McDowell, Graham; Koppes, Michele


Climate-related changes in glacierized watersheds are widely documented, stimulating adaptive responses among the 370 million people living in glacier-influenced watersheds as well as aquatic and riparian ecosystems. The situation denotes important interdependencies between science, society, and ecosystems, yet integrative approaches to the study of adaptation to such changes remain scarce in both the mountain- and non-mountain-focused adaptation scholarship. Using the example of glacio-hydrological change, it is argued here that this analytical limitation impedes the identification, development, and implementation of “successful” adaptations. In response, the paper introduces three guiding principles for robust adaptation research in glaciated mountain regions. Principle 1: Adaptation research should integrate detailed analyses of watershed-specific glaciological and hydro-meteorological conditions; glacio-hydrological changes are context-specific and therefore cannot be assumed to follow idealized trajectories of “peak water”. Principle 2: Adaptation research should consider the complex interplay between glacio-hydrological changes and socio-economic, cultural, and political conditions; responses to environmental changes are non-deterministic and therefore not deducible from hydrological changes alone. Principle 3: Adaptation research should be attentive to interdependencies, feedbacks, and tradeoffs between human and ecological responses to glacio-hydrological change; research that does not evaluate these socio-ecological dynamics may lead to maladaptive adaptation plans. These principles call attention to the linked scientific, social, and ecological dimensions of adaptation, and offer a point of departure for future climate change adaptation research in high mountains.

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