UNESCO-Recognized Glaciers Could Shrink 60 Percent by End of Century

In a recently published Earth’s Future study, researchers from Swiss research institutions inventory and analyze a total of 19,039 glaciers found within 46 World Heritage sites. The research team, led by glaciologist Jean Baptiste Bosson, is the first to catalog and examine glaciers located within UNESCO World Heritage sites. Bosson serves as a scientific officer for the world heritage program at the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

Bosson told GlacierHub: “Theoretically, the World Heritage status is the most important commitment to protect the integrity of cultural and natural features on Earth.”

Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska (Source: Patrick Harvey, Flickr)

In 1972, UNESCO created World Heritage sites in order to identify and preserve areas of significance. Today, there are a total of 1,092 World Heritage sites around the world. Some of UNESCO’s world heritage locations include the Great Barrier Reef, Machu Picchu, the city of Venice, and Yellowstone National Park. World Heritage sites can range from places of cultural significance to areas containing natural value.

More About the Study

Using climate modeling techniques and greenhouse gas emissions scenarios, the researchers calculated the total volume of glaciers located within World Heritage sites and project glacial mass volume changes over time.

The researchers found that the largest proportion of ice-covered areas within world heritage locations are in New Zealand (76 percent), Alaska (44 percent), and northern Asia (26 percent).

In a “business as usual” emissions scenario (RCP8.5), the researchers calculate that 60 percent of total glacial mass volume within world heritage glaciers will be lost by 2100. Additionally, 21 of the 46 sites examined in the study will likely suffer from complete glacial extinction. Glacial loss of this magnitude would likely threaten the integrity of ecosystems, alter large-scale hydrology, and reduce species’ diversity.

Mount Cook, Canterbury, New Zealand (Source: Dave Wong, Flickr)

Reduced emissions scenarios, such as RCP4.5 and RCP2.6, project lessened environmental impacts but require immediate action on curbing greenhouse gas pollution. Unfortunately, all emissions scenarios project future ice loss.

“The key message is that we have to make utmost efforts to conserve glaciers because if they disappear, the current earth system and the life [on] its surface will be completely modified,” Bosson said.

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