Destinations at Risk: Iconic World Heritage Sites Across the Globe Vulnerable to Climate Change

May 26, 2016 | 9:53 am
Adam Markham
Deputy Director of Climate and Energy

I’ve spent a lot of time during the last year researching the impacts of climate change on World Heritage sites. What I’ve found has shocked me. Some of the world’s most iconic tourism destinations and most important heritage sites, including the Galápagos Islands, Venice, and South Africa’s Table Mountain are at risk from climate change. Even the ancient statues of Easter Island (Rapa Nui) aren’t safe. I talked to an archaeologist who told me that some of the ones on the coast are in imminent danger of toppling into the ocean because of coastal erosion and wave damage made worse by climate impacts.

Together with UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization), UNEP (United Nations Environment Programme), and IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature), UCS has published a major new report examining the impacts of climate change on 31 World Heritage sites in 29 countries, including the US. The report, World Heritage and Tourism in a Changing Climate, shows how seriously many of the world’s most important natural and cultural heritage sites are already being affected by climate change, and the risks they face in the future.

The link between tourism and World Heritage

Yellowstone National Park. Photo: UNESCO

Yellowstone National Park. Photo: UNESCO

World Heritage sites are listed for their universal value to humankind, with the intention that they be preserved for future generations. Many are iconic places, such as the Statue of Liberty and Stonehenge, and some of them protect extraordinary wilderness or wildlife, as in Yellowstone or Indonesia’s Komodo Island.

World Heritage sites are often magnets for tourism and economic drivers as well. Visitor spending of nearly $800 million annually at the three US World Heritage sites covered in our new report (Yellowstone, Statue of Liberty, and Mesa Verde) are together responsible for over 11,000 jobs according to Headwaters Economics. In developing nations especially, the acceptance of a site onto the World Heritage List can provide a vital economic boost for local communities, a region or even a whole country.

Tourism is a bit of a double-edged sword, however, and can bring environmental pressures including pollution, over-development, and cultural disruption if poorly managed. These pressures can add to existing threats to World Heritage sites. The risks are myriad—if you can think of a problem, there is almost certainly a World Heritage site suffering from it somewhere in the world—whether it be urbanization, mining, logging, agricultural expansion, pollution, war, or terrorism.

But now unfortunately, the fastest growing risk to World Heritage, and one of the most under-reported by the countries that are parties to the World Heritage convention, is from climate change. Climate change not only brings its own direct impacts such as high temperatures, coastal flooding, and more intense extreme weather events, but it acts as a “risk multiplier,” compounding many of the existing local stresses at each site.

Alarming variety of climate impacts

There is an alarming range of climate impacts already in evidence at World Heritage sites. Some of the most spectacular coral reefs on the planet—Australia’s Great Barrier Reef and the western Pacific islands of New Caledonia and Palau—are currently suffering a massive bleaching event with a direct connection to rising water temperatures caused by climate change.

Rock Islands Southern Lagoon, Pulau, western Pacific. Photo: UNESCO ©-Vincent-Ko-Hon-Chiu-Palau

Rock Islands Southern Lagoon, Pulau, western Pacific. Photo: UNESCO ©-Vincent-Ko-Hon-Chiu-Palau

Earlier this year, irreplaceably rare forests burned in the Tasmanian Wilderness National Park in Australia as climate-driven drought conditions and high temperatures combined to produce devastating wildfires.

Mountain gorillas in Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable National Park—already under threat from human encroachment and habitat loss—are put at longer-term risk from climate-driven changes in their forest habitat and from the potential increase of transmission of diseases from humans in a warmer world.

Scientists in Yellowstone are predicting a transformation of the ecosystem in the worlds’ first national park as higher temperatures; shorter, warmer winters; and reduced snowpack alter the wildfire regime, impact forests and wildlife, and change stream flow and water temperatures.

Cultural heritage at risk

It’s not just natural wonders in World Heritage sites that are at risk.

Globally important cultural sites such as the forts and churches of the colonial port city of Cartagena in Columbia and Venice’s extraordinary architecture, including the extraordinary 13th century mosaics in the Basilica of St. Mark’s are at immediate risk.

The best preserved Neolithic settlement in Europe, 5,000-year-old Skara Brae on the Scottish island of Orkney is only being prevented from being lost to coastal erosion and the sea by a sea wall that needs constant repairs and cannot protect the site forever as storms worsen and sea levels rise.

Many cultural treasures in Asia are vulnerable too. The Vietnamese town of Hoi An—a storied Far Eastern trading port active from the 15th to 19th centuries and on the World Heritage List for its collection of more than 11,00 wood-framed building—is at high risk from flooding and UN experts project that it will suffer severe floods annually by 2020 as a result of sea level rise.

Meanwhile the spectacular rice terraces of the Philippine Cordilleras—cultural landscapes created and maintained over a period of at least 2,000 years by the Ifugao people—are suffering from landslides as a result of worsening extreme weather events.

Rice Terraces of the Philippine Cordilleras. Photo: UNESCO-©-Patrick-Venenoso

Rice Terraces of the Philippine Cordilleras. Photo: UNESCO © Patrick Venenoso

Implementing the Paris Agreement is crucial for World Heritage

World Heritage sites are too important to let go, and there is much that can be done to prevent some of the damage from climate change.

We need a better system of monitoring and assessment for climate impacts at these special places, as well as an early warning system to alert protected area managers to emerging problems. A global assessment of climate risk to all World Heritage sites is also needed, so that we can identify the sites that are most vulnerable. Resources for preparedness and resilience can then be directed to the most at-risk sites.

But protected area management is woefully under-resourced in most countries anyway, so finding additional funding is also a critical issue. Perhaps this is one way the tourism industry can help, by bringing new funds for climate resilience measures in the places tourists visit, so that the attractions that drew them there in the first place—whether they be historic cities, extraordinary landscapes, or abundant wildlife—are not degraded to the point where they no longer hold the values that they are known for.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned as I’ve dug into this issue during the last 12 months, it’s that the most important thing we can do to save World Heritage for our children and grandchildren is implement the Paris Agreement and try to meet the goal of keeping global temperature rise to no more than 1.5˚C. The planet’s thermometer is already at 1˚C, so there is no time to lose.



About the author

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Adam Markham is deputy director for climate at the Union of Concerned Scientists. He helps lead UCS efforts to persuade policymakers to rapidly and effectively respond to the climate crisis, focusing particularly on international climate policy, non-economic loss and damage, biodiversity and cultural heritage.