High mountains in the Baltic Sea Basin – „water towers” of the region

Joanna Pociask-Karteczka
Professor, dr hab.
Department of Hydrology, Institute of Geography and Spatial Management, Jagiellonian University
Kraków, Poland

Scandinavian Mountains and Tatra Mountains are the only regions representing the high mountain environment in the Baltic Sea drainage basin. In spite of dissimilarities in abiotic and biotic components of natural environment of these two mountain ranges, the high mountain landscape – common in both regions – makes them spectacular and exceptional. These mountain ranges rise above the upper forest limit and above Pleistocene snow line, and have a glacial origin, and features, which do not exist in other mountains i.e. glacial cirques, steep rocky crests and walls, cirque lakes, glaciated rocky knobs etc. Presence of glaciers proclaims the Scandinavian Mountains as a very unique and spectacular region in North and Central Europe. In spite of relatively favorable climatic conditions there are no glaciers in the Tatra Mountains due to lack of suitable orographic conditions (too steep mountain slopes). However firn and snow patches are able to survive in cold and moderately cold climatic belts.

Despite a small contribution of high mountains in the Baltic Sea drainage basin (areas over 1000 m a.s.l. represent merely 0.6%), they play a key role in provisioning water to their surrounding landscapes due to the highest precipitation exceeding 2 th mm per year (the Baltic Sea region as a whole has an average annual precipitation of 400 mm). They are vital headwaters of the major rivers in the Baltic Sea region (i.a. Torne, Kalix, Lule, Ume, Indal, Ljungan, Dal, Klarälven, Vah, Dunajec) therefore they can be called natural “water towers” of the region. Mountains are also rich repositories of biodiversity, they provide of ecosystem goods on which downstream communities rely, they contribute to the wellbeing of many people. They are, in general, the basis for the survival of almost the whole Baltic region. Moreover, mountains represent the most fragile environment on Earth, they are particularly vulnerable to any kind external changes.

The Scandinavian Mountains and the Tatra Mountains are facing enormous pressure from various anthropogenic impacts and drivers in global, regional and local scales. Hydropower sites, mining, wind power, deforestation, road building, tourism, recreation, skiing, surface water and groundwater intakes, influence mountains’ environment, including water. Moreover climate change is one of several processes affecting water resources. Changes in the river catchment which is a system of interrelated geographical components induce changes in the hydrological system and rainfall-runoff relations are disturbed. One may observe ongoing intensification of the water cycle, with increasing rates of evapotranspiration and water vapour concentration in the atmosphere.

In the anthropocene age, in particular in a few last decades, many problems in water resources in high mountains resulted from interactions between water and human water demand and use. There are numerous conflicts between different groups: from one side exploiting natural resources in high mountains and from the other side – involved in their protection. Internal inconsistencies, unclear and indecisive statements and the lack of conformability in documents concerning nature resources management and protection are main reasons of bad solutions or faults in the interpretation of limits of human activity in natural environment of high mountains.

It is necessary to take the appropriate activities in management of water resources including an integrated approach in local, regional, trans-regional, and global scales. Efficient natural protection of mountainous areas should continue in order to safeguard water and biodiversity, a very threatened planetary resources. Such measures should be designed so that mountains visitors can continue to enjoy nature and wildlife, although within limits set by the sensitivity of each area. For this purpose the long term concerns need to be given larger importance than the short term. There is a need for a “problem-oriented” research involving experts from different disciplines and incorporating relevant knowledge instead of “discipline-oriented ” research. It might enable solving environmental problems. Pro-ecological education and behaviour of local communities are also very important.

Realising the importance of high mountains as environment of crucial significance for water resources, the Institute of Geography and Spatial Management of the Jagiellonian University in Cracow, the Baltic University Programme in Uppsala and the Tatra National Park in Zakopane developed the Tatra Hydrological Workshop on Sustainable water resources management in high mountains in the Baltic Sea Region (10-13 June 2019) dedicated to students as well as young scientists. The aim of the workshop was to get a relevant knowledge about monitoring and sampling techniques for analyzing hydrological processes, and organizing a monitoring network to control the influence of human activities on the quantity and quality of water resources in high mountain catchments. The number of over 30 participants from Europe, Asia and Africa took part in the workshop. All activities and introductory lectures were provided by specialists, i.a. Lars Ryden (Uppsala Univ.), Ladislav Holko (SAS), Marek Kot (TPN), Miroslaw Żelazny (UJ). The book “Sustainable water resources management in high mountains in the Baltic Sea Region” was published. A full version of the book is available https://denali.geo.uj.edu.pl/publikacje.php?id=000244&lang=1

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