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Most Mountains Don’t Come With Pointy Peaks

Some mountains actually get wider as you go up

Mountains don't all look like this. (Matthew Paulson/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0))
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If you asked someone to draw a mountain, they'd likely sketch a mass wtih a series of pointy spikes. But a study published this week in Nature Climate Change suggests that mountain peaks may in fact hide the larger range's true form. Paul Elsen, a grad student at Princeton University, and Morgan Tingley, a researcher at the University of Connecticut, wanted to dig deeper into mountain topography. So, they examined satellite data from 182 mountain ranges around the world, looking at how the amount of land area changed with elevation.

With a classic, cartoon-like peak, you'd expect the land area to get smaller and smaller as you go higher and higher. But most of the most of the ranges — 68 percent to be exact — didn't do that. Instead, as elevation climbed, a small fraction actually had more area, almost like a reverse pyramid. Some had an hourglass shape, with less area at mid-elevation, and others took more of a diamond shape, carrying most of their area in the middle.

The team wasn't totally surprised by their results. “I did expect that we’d see some patterns that were not this classic pyramid, [but] I had no idea that pyramid mountains would be the exception to the rule," Elsen, who got interested in the subject while doing fieldwork in the Himalayas told The Washington Post's Chelsea Harvey.

The shape of a mountain range can impact a lot of things, including how its residents respond to threats, like climate change. Species have a different set of factors to contend with depending on where they live on the slope of a mountain. The going hypothesis is that as temperatures rise many organisms will shift their homes up in search of cooler locales. Because the perception of pyramid-shaped mountains was so prolific, scientists feared that climate change could create competition for land and resources at higher elevations. Some species would get edged out and perhaps even go extinct.

But this new picture suggests that animals might find themselves with less space at different elevations, depending on the shape of the mountain range. In some cases, if climate change pushes a species upslope, they might actually have more habitat to explore. How the mountain is shaped has implications for how conservationists should go about protecting the species that live there.

About Helen Thompson
Helen Thompson

Helen Thompson writes about science and culture for Smithsonian. She's previously written for NPR, National Geographic News, Nature and others.

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