A recent study published in the journal Earth’s Future presents the first ever inventory of glaciers in UNESCO World heritage sites. The study authors identified 19,000 glaciers across 46 sites, studied their current state, and projected their changes in mass by 2100. The researchers found that “except for the mostly balanced conditions modeled for Heard and McDonald Islands (Antarctic Islands), substantial ice loss will occur in all natural World Heritage sites.” The study compares glaciers to umbrella species because “their conservation will automatically allow and imply the conservation of other features threatened by global warming” and to keystone species “because of their disproportionately large impacts on nature and societies on Earth.”
The study highlights that “the safeguarding of these iconic and important natural features could mobilize global‐scale conservation and mitigation benefits. As for all glaciers and ice sheets on Earth, their preservation reinforces the compelling priority for strong and rapid reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and thereby a deep modification of human impacts on the climate.”
Artificial Glaciers in the Himalayas
The New Yorker looks at the proliferation of artificial glaciers in the Himalayas: “The first ice stupa was created in 2013, in Ladakh, in Kashmir. Villages in Ladakh, a high mountain-desert region bordered by the Himalayas, largely depend on glacial runoﬀ for water. As the glaciers recede, owing to climate change, the ﬂow of water has become more erratic. Sometimes there’s too much, producing flashflooding; often, there’s too little. The ice stupa, a kind of artficial glacier, is the brainchild of a Ladakhi engineer named Sonam Wangchuk.”
Graphic Novel Looks at Alexander von Humboldt’s Expeditions
Author Andrea Wulf and artist Lillian Melcher worked together to create The Adventures of Alexander von Humboldt.
From the New York Botanical Garden: “Focusing on Humboldt’s five-year expedition in South America, Wulf and Melcher incorporate pages of his own diaries, sketches, drawings, and maps to create an intimate portrait of the radical ecologist who predicted human-induced climate change and fashioned poetic narrative out of scientific observation.
Driven by his conviction that the world was a single, interconnected organism, Humboldt was the first to note similarities among climate zones across the world. His work turned scientific observation into poetic narrative that influenced great minds from Goethe to Darwin and Thoreau.”
In a recently published Earth’s Futurestudy, 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.”
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.
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.
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.