On September 22nd of next year, some of you will be stepping off a plane, taking enormous lungfuls of fresh, pure Austrian air, and exclaiming “oh wow, I just love the mountains!”
You’re far from alone. It’s not just about the winter sports - although you could obviously point towards all the mountainous tourist destinations in the U.S. and Europe that are doing a brisk trade. For example, according to the National Ski Areas Association, around 55 million skiers and snowboarders visited U.S. mountains during the 2016-2017 ski season - almost the equivalent of the entire population of South Africa.
But that’s the more adventurous side of tourism. What about the rest of us, wanting nothing more ambitious than an incredible view to gaze at while sipping our morning coffee? Why do mountains lift our spirits and make our knees a little weak in exactly that way? After all, they’re relatively difficult places for humans to exist.
(When I was an archaeologist, we called mountains “liminal regions” - natural barriers that were difficult to cross, or places where communities could naturally find the kind of safe isolation afforded by artificial hillforts or fortresses elsewhere - if they could gather enough food and wood and other resources to survive, which was always a big question-mark.)
Perhaps it’s how untamed mounatinscapes are. How deliciously inhuman. It’s the natural world doing something we could never achieve, on a scale that humbles even the liveliest imagination - so we respond with humility, awe and wonder.
The mountains weren’t made for us, they’re just part of a vast geological dance that has been happening on a timescale that renders humanity’s existence utterly inconsequential - so what an unmissable treat it is to be able to see them for ourselves.
But - is that true? With all the modern advances in architecture, can we really not build mountains for ourselves?
Sometime around early 2016, the United States National Center for Atmospheric Research received what might have looked like a very strange request from the government of the United Arab Emirates. By way of a $400,000 grant, could they help the UAE research the potential environmental impact of building an artificial mountain somewhere in the country?
It’s certainly not the wildest proposed engineering project for this region of the world. Just look at the ones that were actually built, like Dubai’s Burj Khalifa (at 829.8 metres, it’s the tallest building in the world), or the Palm Islands artificial archipelago. Or look next door, at Saudia Arabia’s Neom project, complete with a futuristic ski resort, and a proposed 170-km-long mirrored skyscraper canyon-megacity.
(No, I’m not making this up, and yes, it seems they’re seriously having a go. For the reasons Elle Griffin lays out here, there might be some impressive upsides to it - although the great human love-affair with the automobile seems to be smack in the way…)
But this has been going on for a lot longer. From the Pyramids to the Ziggurat of Ur, ancient peoples have been putting astonishing amounts of effort into creating credible smaller-scale replicas of mountains for thousands of years.
And as Atlas Obscura notes, the world is already littered with more modern artificial mountains, particularly the United States, in the form of construction spoil-heaps left over from cement and steel production. Many of these have been tidied up. grassed over and turned into something that looks like it was always there.
But really, most of these are just hills. Whatever the point is when a hill feels big enough to be labelled a mountain, these artificial constructions usually fall short of it. Making an artificial *mountain* is something on another scale entirely, requiring a mind-boggling investment of effort, time and money.
Nevertheless, the UAE is looking into it. Of course it is. It already has a permanent weather modification department (which spends hundreds of thousands of dollars each year on cloud-seeding measures to encourage rainfall - most recently by zapping clouds with electrical pulses fired from drones, apparently with successful results). Why not go even further?
But the proposed UAE mountain is actually a megaproject with a fascinating science-based difference - and that difference is presumably why a reputable organization like the NCAR agreed to get involved.
If you live near a mountain, you’ll be used to the sight of rain. It may not necessarily be falling on you, but certainly you’ll see a lot of it. Mountains are rainmaking machines: like hands wringing a wet dishcloth, a mountain forces moisture-laden air to rise until it’s unable to hold onto its water any longer, and dumps it in great sheets of condensed precipitation.
If a mountain’s tall and wide enough, this wringing-out is so thorough that negligible rain reaches the other side - and, even worse, the onward-moving, newly-dry air creates a downslope wind that sucks up moisture from the land underneath it, creating a double-whammy effect that can parch fertile land into desert.
Perhaps the clearest example of this is the island of Madagascar, off the east coast of Africa.
The island as a whole gets enough rainfall to ensure that the central and western regions aren’t all barren desert - but you can certainly see the difference in fertility along its thin, green strip of land to the east, where coastal plains give way to mountains that squeeze most of the rain out of the easterly winds before they head west.
Human beings have understood the relationship between mountains and rain since…well, probably since they became human beings. And it’s been just over a century since the formal study of the atmospheric sciences (mainly for weather prediction) took off in academic settings. Now it seems some people are starting to regard mountains as tools. The kind we can build ourselves, to get the results we want.
Because of its effect on rainfall, this kind of artificial mountain-building is an example of geoengineering, a scattered array of proposed and already-implemented technological interventions in our planet’s climate systems.
Some of them are pure science fiction at this point - like launching mirrors into space that would reflect away a few percent of the sunlight warming the Earth.
Others are already underway, like the release of iron particles into the oceans that boost phytoplankton growth and speed up the sea’s ability to lock up carbon. (As this article notes, we’re already doing this accidentally in the form of pollution - but it seems that in this case, our poor planetary stewardship may have a surprising upside that’s worth exploring further, albeit extremely carefully.)
All forms of geoengineering are, understandably, hugely controversial. Aside from the ethics of a rich corner of the world embarking on a project that affects every part of the globe (even if those changes are beneficial, which seems currently impossible to judge) - well, do we not have enough self-inflicted existential crises on our plate? What happens if a so-called corrective measure spirals out of control?
These are not trivial questions, and it seems they haunt even the most well-informed people working in these fields.
Take mountains and rainfall. Even if an artificial rain-focusing structure did work as intended, what would happen if the average wind direction changes? As climate change pumps more energy into the atmosphere, our weather systems will get more chaotic.
Just because moisture-laden air used to come from a particular quarter, that’s no guarantee that it’ll continue to do so. What if regional wind-patterns shift, and suddenly all your agricultural land is in the rain-shadow of that lovely new mountain your government’s recently thrown up?
Did any of this occur to German architect Jakob Tigges when he proposed turning Berlin’s abandoned Tempelhof Airport into a thousand-metre-high mountain?
His megaproject, The Berg, would act as a natural habitat for mountain wildlife, a recreation space for the city’s residents like the park that the former airfield is today - and, perhaps, an enormous stick of dynamite lobbed into the path of Berlin’s weather systems? (No need to worry: despite its popularity with the public, The Berg was never greenlit for construction.)
This whole topic seems like one great big question-mark - certainly to my uninformed eyes, and also (alarmingly) to many of the experts working within it. But while the science is being messily thrashed out behind the scenes, our obsession with jagged skylines continues as it always has - and there’s nowhere else on our planet that gives us quite the same feel as being kilometres above sea level, surrounded by the most sublime natural splendor of our planet:
“Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature's peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop away from you like the leaves of Autumn.” - John Muir, The Mountains of California (1882).
Join Wheel & Anchor next year for an awe-inspiring 14-day journey through the enchanting landscapes of the Austrian Alps, starting in the picturesque lakeside town of Zell am See. More details here.