Looking past the peaks to determine the true shape of mountain ranges
From toddlers’ drawings to corporate logos, most people picture mountains as pyramidal, or as my kindergartner put it, “triangles.” However, it’s always a good idea to actually test such assumptions, and it turns out that only a 3rd of mountains could be described as pyramids. Individual peaks often come to some sort of point, but the ranges are more often a variety of shapes, even hourglasses.
Scientists weren’t looking at these mountains just to find perfect silhouettes for postcards. They were really looking at how much inhabitable land was available at various elevations. So while a mountain may appear to taper towards the top from a distance, the actual topography, with crevices, cliffs and overhangs, might leave more usable surface area at the top of the mountain vs. the middle. A flat-topped plateau, for instance, is more habitable for animals at the top than along the steep cliffs at lower elevations.
Why worry about an inverted pyramid?
How each shape might perform as a habitat was key to this study. If changes in the climate raise temperatures, plants and animals are likely to move higher up the mountain to get back to the temperature range they’re accustomed to. Some mountain shapes might have less available land higher up, while other shapes, like an inverted pyramid, might actually have more. These calculations will then hopefully help inform future conservation efforts as we try to help species adapt to changes in the environment.
My kindergartner asked: What shape is Mount Everest? The shape of that specific peak wasn’t mentioned, but the Himalayan mountains as a range are apparently hourglass shaped, which means that species living in the middle altitudes may actually benefit from more real estate if they end up moving higher up.
Source: We’ve been imagining mountains all wrong, say scientists by Chelsea Harvey, The Washington Post