World Heritage Sites (and Maybe Your Next Vacation) at Risk from Climate Change

Last month, UNESCO released a report titled "World Heritage and Tourism in a Changing Climate," which provided case studies detailing how some of the world's most culturally important places are affected by climate change. As global temperatures rise and weather grows more extreme, these treasured sites are at risk of being degraded, or worse, destroyed.

The report was published with the goal of providing guidance on follow-up action after the signing of the Paris Climate Agreement and the adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals in 2015. As individual citizens, we too can help avoid the worst-case scenarios for these World Heritage Sites through sustainable day-to-day habits.

Below are six of the 31 World Heritage Sites profiled that we risk losing to a warming planet (you can read about them all here in the full report).

Yellowstone National Park
United States of America

In the vast expanse of Yellowstone, the world's first national park, visitors can gaze at wildlife and lose themselves in nature. Unfortunately, the increasingly warmer temperatures in the park threaten the blissful experience that many tourists seek.

There has been a steep decline in snowfall between 1961 to 2012, for example, which has reduced peak stream flows and in turn decreased the population of native fish species. Wildfires naturally play a role in the changing landscape of the park's forests, but the season in which these fires burn has been drawn out from five months to seven. This longer fire season, in combination with warmer temperatures, is predicted to increase the annual area burned by wildfire by at least 600 percent, which would radically alter ecosystems. Bears and squirrels feed on highly calorific pine nuts from whitebark pines, an ecologically-crucial tree species threatened by climate-driven beetle infestations.


Lake Malawi National Park

Lake Malawi is situated between Malawi, Mozambique, and Tanzania in the southern Africa. The National Park at the southern end of this enormous lake (9th largest in the world) provides tourists the opportunity to scuba dive and boat among the greatest diversity of freshwater fish in the world.

Increasing temperatures have caused more evaporation, consequently decreasing the lake levels and endangering the Park's ecosystems. Longer dry periods have also contributed to this problem (as seen now in the drought affecting Malawi and other Sub-Saharan African countries).


Galápagos Islands

The Galapagos Islands are famous for their endemic wildlife studied by Charles Darwin in the early 19th century. Made up of 21 islands and more than 100 islets, this archipelago receives more than 200,000 visitors each year.

While the side effects of tourism certainly take a toll on the Islands, perhaps the most significant concerns to this World Heritage Site are severe El Niño events. Scientists have determined that since 1880, regular El Niño events have warmed the typically cool waters and increased rainfall approximately every two to seven years. When these events are more extreme, however, the entire food web is disrupted, often resulting in a decline in native species populations. Climate change increases the frequency of these severe El Niño events, threatening the animal populations that made the Galapagos a renowned destination for wildlife lovers.


Hoi An Ancient Town

Hoi An is one of the most-visited cities in Vietnam. The city has been increasingly attracting tourists who come to view the well-preserved architecture and patronize the multitude of tailoring businesses offering custom clothing. The photogenic riverside, lined with centuries-old buildings, is extremely vulnerable to flooding. It is estimated that most of the area of Hoi An where the heritage houses stand could begin to experience annual inundations by the year 2020 due to climate change.


Rapa Nui National Park (Easter Island)

Rapa Nui National Park, known by most as Easter Island, lies 2,000 miles off the coast of Chile, making it the most remote inhabited island in the world. Its iconic moai statues draw a daily average of 5,000 tourists during the peak summer months, essentially doubling the Island's native population.


The basalt walls on which some of the famed figures stand are pounded by waves that have grown stronger and taller as climate change has worsened. Experts have identified four highly-visited sites that are at serious risk of toppling because of these waves.


Venice and its Lagoon

The romantic canals that have made Venice, Italy one of the most visited cities on Earth are also a looming danger to this World Heritage Site. Rising sea levels induced by climate change make the historic buildings, statues, and monuments more vulnerable to water damage. A series of flood gates are due to be completed in 2017 to protect the city from future tidal floods and storms, but even this technology cannot fully protect the stunning architecture from climate-driven sea-level rise.


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