A new report entitled “World Heritage and Tourism in a Changing Climate” highlights the vulnerability of key glacial World Heritage Sites to climate change. The report was coauthored by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), and the Union of Concerned Scientists.
Since 1972, UNESCO has been protecting more than 1,000 World Heritage sites in 163 different countries, with the goal of maintaining them for the benefit of future generations, and for all humankind. Most of these sites are iconic tourist destinations, ranging from natural wonders such as Yellowstone National Park, scenic wild landscapes such as the Galapagos Islands, to cultural icons, such as Stonehenge. Many are glaciers and glacial mountain ranges.
But climate change impacts, such as sea level rise, higher temperatures, habitat shifts, and more frequent and extreme weather events, threaten to quickly and permanently degrade and destroy both the natural beauty and cultural value of these sites. Moreover, climate change exacerbates the effects of other processes which endanger these sites, such as urbanization, pollution, natural resource extraction and, increasingly, poorly managed tourism.
The report argues that damaging what it calls the “outstanding universal value” of World Heritage sites harms not only the site itself, but also the local communities and economies that depend on these sites for tourism.
UNESCO and its World Heritage program were both created in a spirit of internationalism. UNESCO was formed following World War II, and in 1972, it created the World Heritage Centre to “encourage international cooperation in the conservation of our world’s cultural and natural heritage.” Now, climate change threatens these universally loved sites, as well as their surrounding local communities.
The report details 12 full case studies and 18 briefer “sketches” of the climate change vulnerability of 31 World Heritage properties in 29 countries. Four include glacier landmarks.
Sagarmatha National Park, Nepal
Sagarmatha National Park encompasses the highest point on earth: the peak of Mount Everest. The National Park is listed as a World Heritage site for the abundant natural beauty of its mountains, glaciers, and valleys, and for the cultural significance of local Sherpa culture. One third of the people on Earth depend on glacial melt water from the Himalayas, including water from Sagarmatha. However, glacial retreat caused by rising temperatures are threatening the reliability of Sagarmatha’s water source. Glacier loss in the region also threatens to cause catastrophic landslides, glacial lake outbreak floods (GLOFs), and erosion.
Golden Mountains of Altai, Russian Federation
The Altai Mountains are listed as a World Heritage site for their biodiversity and for the region’s cultural and archaeological traditions. The mountains hold the frozen tombs of the ancient Scythian people, who were documented by ancient historian Herodotus (484-425 BC). Climate change and rising temperatures threaten both threatens the tombs’ preservation, which are remarkably protected by permafrost, and the Altai mountain glaciers.
Huascarán National Park, Peru
Huascarán National Park rests in Cordillera Blanca, the highest mountain range in the world’s tropics, and the Park encases Huascarán: the highest peak in Peru. The Park contains incredibly diverse flora and fauna and 660 glaciers, making it a popular tourist destination. The famous Pastoruri Glacier is one of the park’s main attraction, but it may disappear altogether within the next few decades. Since the 1930s, the Park’s glaciers have shrunk by 30 per cent. This poses concerns about water availability for many local communities, as well as for hydropower.
Ilulissat Icefjord, Greenland, Denmark
The Icefjord serves as a major summer tourist destination, where visitors travel to the enormous Sermeq Kujalleq Glacier, which hangs off of the Disko Bay. In the summer, visitors can hear and see the ice cracking and caving into the bay. Increased temperatures have increased the amount of seasonal ice caving. The glacier is listed as a World Heritage site for its contribution to improving the scientific understanding of glaciology, for its global importance as a geological feature, and for its wild and scenic landscape.
The report stresses the importance of fulfilling the Paris Agreement, which was adopted in December of 2015. The report’s foreword states that achieving the Agreement’s goal of keeping global average temperature rise to well below 2°C is “vital for the future of World Heritage.” It contains as well a number of other specific recommendations which link many stakeholders–local communities, indigenous peoples, policy-makers, tourism agencies, intergovernmental organization and the World Heritage Convention–to monitor, manage and protect these areas.
In addition to detailing the climate vulnerability of World Heritage sites, the report also details a “clear and achievable” mitigation response. The paper recommends preserving and managing forest and coastal habitats, using World Heritage sites as “learning laboratories” to study resiliency and mitigation management strategies, and increasing visitors’ understanding of and appreciation for World Heritage sites, as well as how climate change affects them.
The report also suggests that in a changing climate, tourism can play a positive role in securing the future of many World Heritage sites by providing an economic incentive to invest in mitigation and adaptation strategies. In this light, glaciers may serve as an important rallying point for climate change mitigation. Their natural beauty and cultural value can inspire people at the local, national, and international level to take action.