Recognising the true value of Europe's mountains

News Published 14 Sep 2010 Last modified 21 Jun 2016
2 min read
Mountains have contributed to shaping not only Europe's history, society and economy, but also its climate and environment. A new report by the European Environment Agency (EEA) provides an in-depth analysis of populations, ecosystems, water cycles, land cover and policies in mountain areas.

Mountains have long provided livelihoods and inspiration to those living nearby. For populations in lowlands, mountains regulate water flow, supply clean air and offer recreation and tourism opportunities away from cities. The new EEA report 'Europe's ecological backbone: recognising the true value of our mountains' presents a complete overview of the forces at play and their interactions, with a view to improving policies affecting Europe’s mountain areas.

How do you define a 'mountain'?

European countries set different criteria for defining what constitutes a mountain. In addition, regional conventions covering the Alps and the Carpathians and EU legislation affecting mountain areas all define them differently. The new EEA study, presented at the 7th European Mountain Convention, uses topography and altitude criteria based on data from digital elevation models. According to that definition, 36 % of Europe’s area and 29 % of the EU-27 are defined as mountainous.

A significant part of the EU's mountain areas is protected under nature conservation schemes such as Natura 2000 or is classified as High Nature Value farmland. Most mountain areas in the EU are also designated as 'Less Favoured Areas', allowing them to benefit from EU development funds.

Development pressures and climate change at play

Mountains generally have relatively low population densities. In total 17 % of Europe’s population (118 million people), and 13 % of the EU population (63 million) live in mountain areas. From 1990 to 2005, population density in mountains as a whole increased considerably but at country level it varied significantly.

Although agriculture and forestry remain important for cultural identity and as a source of employment, especially in southern and eastern Europe, the service sector is actually the greatest source of employment in a large majority of EU countries. The economic isolation often associated with mountain areas has been partly overcome by EU initiatives such as the Trans-European Transport Network.

Temperatures and snowlines have been rising in Europe’s mountains, affecting mountain species and habitats. Climate change, changes in land use and hydropower development all impact the water retention and runoff in mountains, which in turn affect lowlands.

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