Before they disappear: Treasured UNESCO sites at risk from climate change

CNN  — 

From the sinking city of Venice to the mass bleaching of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, climate change is drastically impacting some of the world’s most treasured heritage sites.

To date, over 1,000 bucket-list locations have earned a spot on UNESCO’s World Heritage list on account of their “outstanding universal value” to humanity.

But, if the world continues to warm – driven predominately by human activity through greenhouse gas emissions – many of these landmarks may lose some of those “outstanding” values or even cease to exist at all.

Perhaps the starkest example is Greenland’s impressive Ilulissat Icefjord, a World Heritage site where the Sermeq Kujalleq glacier is literally melting before our eyes, partly because of global warming.

Icebergs that broke off from the Sermeq Kujalleq glacier in Ilulissat, Greenland.

The fjord is even marketed by the Government of Greenland as an opportunity to witness climate change in action, and a destination to see “before it’s too late.”

“Virtually every World Heritage site has some level of threat from climate change,” said Adam Markham, deputy director of the Climate and Energy Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, a science advocacy NGO based in the United States.

At some locations the threat is obvious and imminent.

Yellowstone National Park in the US, for example, is experiencing shorter winters with less snowfall, warmer rivers, shrinking lakes and wetlands, and longer fire seasons, according to a joint report by the United Nations Environment Programme, UNESCO and the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Yellowstone contains half of the globe's known geothermal features, and is home to an array of wildlife including grizzly bears, wolves and bison.

Scientists estimate that nearly half of the wetlands in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem could be lost, and more frequent fires will likely lead to its dense forest becoming a more open woodland, over time.

Elsewhere, El Nño events are warming waters around the Galápagos Islands off the coast of Ecuador and disrupting food supplies on which many Galápagos species rely.

Rising sea levels and higher waves during storms are threatening to topple the mysterious moai statues on remote Rapa Nui – also known as Easter Island – in the southeastern Pacific Ocean.