MRI History

The global context

Mountain research as an endeavor of individual scientists has a long tradition going back to at least the 1800s with Alexander Humboldt and Louis Agassiz. As a global concern, and as a field of research with important implications for policy, the topic gained attention only after 1970.

Two factors provided the impetus for organizing mountain science at the global and regional scale. In 1972, the launch of the Man and the Biosphere Programme’ of UNESCO provided a basis for more integrated mountain research.  The 1st UNO Conference on “Human Environment” in Stockholm instigated an entire series of subsequent mountain conferences. It declared that “research should be promoted, assisted, coordinated, or undertaken by the Man and the Biosphere Programme” (UN Conference Recommendation 24, 1972) and further stated that international cooperation “is essential to effectively control, prevent, reduce and eliminate adverse environmental effects” (UN Conference Declaration, Principle 24, 1972). It asked for cooperation at the international level in order to prevent environmental problems from going beyond national borders.

Secondly, the vision and spirit of a group of scientists from various countries, today known as the “mountain mafia,” including among others Lawrence Hamilton, Jack Ives, Bruno Messerli, Yuri Badenkov, Jayanta Bandyopadhyay, Peter Stones, and Maurice Strong, promoted the idea of interdisciplinary research cooperation to address the challenges posed to mountain ecosystems at the global level.

Both the international political environment and the personal commitment of the “mountain mafia” contributed to the growing recognition of mountains in the global arena and led to the inclusion of Chapter 13, the “Mountain Chapter”, in “Agenda 21”, the plan of action endorsed at the UN Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. This event, which placed mountains in the context of sustainable development, was crucial in instigating numerous mountain publications and follow-up activities. 

The first UN resolution on the theme of mountains in 1998 set the next milestone in the mountain research history. It included the designation of the year 2002 as the International Year of the Mountains (IYM), which reinforced the implementation of Chapter 13 of Agenda 21 placing mountains on an equal footing with climate change, tropical deforestation and desertification. Among other objectives, the IYM was to initiate new mountain research programmes. A solid knowledge base about mountain ecosystems and their responses to global change was identified as a precondition for the successful follow-up of the IYM, the implementation of Chapter 13, the development of national strategies for sustainable development and the formulation of mountain-specific policies (Hofer 2005). In 2002, the World Summit on Sustainable Development adopted a Plan of Implementation in which paragraph 42 is specifically devoted to mountains.

The Mountain Research Initiative

In the wake of these events, the Mountain Research Initiative was launched. The origins of the Mountain Research Initiative (MRI) are found in the 1990s, coincident with the preparations for the IYM in 2002. The International Geosphere Biosphere Programme (IGBP), together with the International Human Dimensions Programme (IHDP) and the Global Terrestrial Observation System (GTOS), proposed a joint initiative to “achieve an integrated approach for observing, modeling and investigating Global Change phenomena and processes in mountain regions, including the impacts of these changes and of human activities on mountain ecosystems” (UN Assembly 2000: 8).

A small group of devoted scientists, including but not limited to Harald Bugmann, Alfred Becker, Lisa Graumlich, Martin Price, Wilfried Häberli, Michael Kuhn, Georg Grabherr, and Bill Bowman translated this goal into an integrated interdisciplinary approach (Becker and Bugmann 2001) spanning a range of activities: monitoring, process studies, modeling, as well as guidance to policy and management.

In 2001, the first Executive Director, Dr. Mel Reasoner, established a MRI Coordination Office in Berne, hosted by the Swiss Academy of Sciences. Prof. Harald Bugmann served as the first President of MRI's Scientific Advisory Board. A major initial product under Reasoner's tenure was “Global Change and Mountain Regions: An overview of current knowledge” (Huber et al. 2005) in which 67 mountain researchers outlined the current state of the science. During this time Bugmann sponsored a successful proposal to the Swiss National Science Foundation, which lead to the Coordination Office moving to ETH Zürich from 2004 to 2007.

In 2004, Dr. Gregory Greenwood joined the MRI as the new Executive Director. Under his guidance, the MRI initiated regional networks and networking events to knit the community together as well as synthesis efforts to carry on from the 2005 book of Huber et al.. In 2007, Prof. Rolf Weingartner succeeded Bugmann as President of the Scientific Advisory Board, and the MRI Coordination Office moved to the Institute of Geography at the University of Bern.

MRI pursues its commitment to the facilitation of dialogue between science and practice. The 2-years FP7 project on “Mountain Sustainability: Transforming research into practice” (MountainTRIP), for instance, which was developed and implemented by MRI and European partners in 2009-2011, translated scientific results into guidance for practitioners of sustainable mountain development. 

At present, the MRI connects more than 10'000 global change researchers who are organized in regional networks in North- and South-America (TCA), Africa (AfroMont), Europe (MRI-Europe), with regional initiatives in the Carpathians (S4C) and South Eastern Europe (SEEmore).


Read more:

Becker A, Bugmann H (eds.) (2001). Global Change and Mountain Regions: The Mountain Research Initiative. IGBP Report Series 49; GTOS 28; IHDP Report Series 13. Stockholm. ( pdf )

Björnsen Gurung, A, ed. (2006). Global Change and Mountain Regions Research Strategy. MRI/UNESCO Publication, ADAG Copy AG, Zürich, 47p. ( pdf )

Björnsen Gurung, A. (2010). Alpine Knowledge Gardening: Research Network for the advancement of science and development. In: Borsdorf, A., G. Grabherr, K. Heinrich, B. Scott and J. Stötter (eds.): Challenges for Mountain Regions – Tackling Complexity. Vienna: Böhlau. (more)

Björnsen Gurung, A. (2011). Science Networks for Global Change in Mountain Regions: The Mountain Research Initiative. In: Georgi Zhelezov (ed.), Sustainable Development in Mountain Regions: Southeastern Europe. Springer, Dordrecht, 281-287. ISBN: 978-94-007-0130-4  (more)

Graumlich L. (2002). The Mountain Research Initiative. IHDP Newsletter 1:6. (more)

Hofer Th. (2005). The International Year of the Mountains: Challenge and opportunity for mountain research. In: Huber U. et al (eds), Global Change and Mountain Regions. An Overview of current knowledge. Springer, Dordrecht, 1-8.

Huber, U.M., Bugmann, H., Reasoner, M, eds. (2005). Global Change and Mountain Regions. An Overview of current knowledge. Springer, Dordrecht, 650pp. (more)

Messerli B. (2001). The International Year of Mountains, the Mountain Research Initiative and PAGES. PAGES Newsletter 1:2. (more)

Reasoner M, Graumlich L, Messerli B, Bugmann H (2002). Global Change and Mountains: The need for an integrated approach to address human security in the 21st century. IHDP Update 1:1-5. (more)

UN General Assembly 2000. Status of preparations for the International Year of Mountains, 2002. Report of the Secretary General A/55/218. New York.

UN Conference on the Human Environment (1972). Recommendation 24. More

UN Conference on the Human Environment (1972). Declaration U.N. Doc. A/Conf.48/14/Rev. 1 (1973); 11 I.L.M. 1416 (1972). More