10 of the Great World Heritage Sites That Could Be Destroyed by Climate Change


An alarming new report finds that climate change is a major threat to several of the world’s most popular tourist attractions. From mountains, jungles, cedar forests and ice fjords to towns, ports, beaches, ruins and statues, no site is safe from the wide-ranging impacts of man-caused climate change.

Released by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, the United Nations Environment Program and the Union of Concerned Scientists, the report identifies 31 natural and cultural World Heritage sites across 29 countries that are vulnerable to a range of climate change-related impacts, from increasing temperatures, melting glaciers and rising sea levels to extreme weather events, intensifying droughts and more frequent and more severe wildfires.

"Climate change could eventually even cause some World Heritage sites to lose their status," said Adam Markham, lead author of the report and deputy director of the Climate and Energy Program at UCS.

Tourism, one of the largest and fastest growing economic sectors, will likely be affected by the dramatic changes expected at these sites, and so will the local communities that depend on that tourism. At stakes are billions of dollars in both conservation expenses and tourism revenue. But tourism and climate are engaged in a vicious circle, as the report’s authors stress that tourism itself is set to contribute an even greater amount to climate change.

The report states:

At many World Heritage sites, the direct and indirect impacts of climate change may present a threat to their outstanding universal value (OUV), integrity and authenticity. Climate change is a threat multiplier, and will increase vulnerability and exacerbate other stresses including, but not limited to, pollution, conflict over resources, urbanization, habitat fragmentation, loss of intangible cultural heritage and the impacts of unplanned or poorly managed tourism.

“Globally, we need to better understand, monitor and address climate change threats to World Heritage sites,” said Mechtild Rössler, director of UNESCO’s World Heritage Center. “As the report’s findings underscore, achieving the Paris Agreement’s goal of limiting global temperature rise to a level well below 2 degrees Celsius is vitally important to protecting our World Heritage for current and future generations.”

While conservation measures are currently being undertaken at some of the sites identified in the report, climate plans are nonexistent for most of them. The authors suggest that the lack of urgency is because “climate change is too often regarded as a long-term potential problem for World Heritage sites rather than as an imminent or near-term issue.”

Here are 10 of the most popular World Heritage Sites around the globe currently under threat from climate change.

1. Yellowstone National Park, United States

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A herd of bison moves along the Firehole River near Midway Geyser Basin in Yellowstone National Park. (image: Lee Prince/Shutterstock)

Yellowstone may be America's most iconic national park. Designated as a World Heritage Site in 1978, the park, which lies mostly in Wyoming, launched the United States' national park system in 1872. In 1898, Sierra Club founder John Muir urged people to visit this incredible biodiverse landscape, which includes the famous Old Faithful Geyser and around 1,000 archaeological sites: "A thousand Yellowstone wonders are calling, 'Look up and down and round about you!'"

But the park’s many wonders and the wildlife who call it home are imperiled, as climate change effects are already in progress. “Warming is already causing winter in the park to become shorter, with less snowfall and snow staying on the ground less often,” the report states. “At the northeast entrance to the park, near Silver Gate, Montana, there are now many more days when temperatures rise above freezing every year than there were during the mid-1980s.”

Warmer winters means less snow, which impacts the health of the park's rivers and streams. Because of warmer temperatures, biologists have predicted that native cutthroat trout populations are facing a reduction by 26 percent. The warmer winters have also given rise to pine beetles, which are decimating Yellowstone’s trees. “Over time, Yellowstone’s familiar landscape and ecology is likely to be dramatically transformed by climate change,” according to UCS.

2. Statue of Liberty, United States

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The Statue of Liberty, New York City (image: Sanchai Kumar/Shutterstock)

When Hurricane Sandy hit the northeast coast of the United States in October 2012, floodwaters engulfed nearly three-fourths of Liberty Island, the location of the Statue of Liberty, which was in the direct path of the massive storm. The water damaged much of the island’s infrastructure, including walkways, jetties and electric, water, sewer, HVAC, phone and security systems. Because the site had to be closed for several months, millions of tourism dollars were lost.

To date, $100 million has been allocated to restore Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty, and to ensure preparedness for the increasing number of intense storms that are predicted to occur in the future due to climate change. Sea level rise is also a primary threat. In 2015, the U.S. National Park Service carried out a vulnerability analysis that concluded that 100 percent of Liberty National Monument assets are at “high exposure” risk from rising sea level.

“The assets at risk on Liberty and Ellis Islands, including the Statue of Liberty itself, are valued at more than $1.5 billion,” the report notes. “But the intangible cost of future damage to this international symbol of freedom and democracy is incalculable.”

3. Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, Uganda

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A mother mountain gorilla with a baby, Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park, Uganda. (image: Gudkov Andrey/Shutterstock)

Located in southwestern Uganda, Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park is home to a little less than half of the world's 880 remaining endangered mountain gorillas. Their population in Bwindi has been steadily increasing, thanks to effective protection and forest management efforts, subsidized in part by revenue from gorilla tourism.

But as UCS points out, while these gorillas still face risks from habitat loss and human development, they will “face new threats from climate change, including changes to their forest habitat and the increased danger of diseases being transmitted from nearby human populations and tourists.”

In addition, the report’s authors point to a study that warns that “up to 75 percent of their current habitat could be lost under severe climatic change.”

4. Cape Floral Region, South Africa

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Cape Floral Region, South Africa (image: Rialfver/Wikimedia)

Described as "one of the most special places for plants in the world in terms of diversity, density and number of endemic species" by UNESCO, South Africa's Cape Floral Region, which spans more than 1.3 million acres, is known as one of Earth's "hottest hotspots" in terms of biodiversity.

This unique ecosystem is home to more than 9,000 species of vascular plants, 69 percent of which are endemic. But this spectacular landscape is under fire. “Already under pressure from development and population growth, this extraordinary area, its unique biodiversity and the tourism revenue that supports local livelihoods and helps drive the region’s economy are now threatened by the warmer and drier conditions resulting from climate change,” the report states.

The report also notes evidence of an increase in large fires in the area since the 1990s, an obvious impact of which is "a reduction in the height of the overall vegetation structure." But plant species aren’t the only lifeforms at risk, as the ecosystem supports myriad animal species, including six endemic species of birds.

5. Ouadi Qadisha (the Holy Valley) and the Forest of the Cedars of God (Horsh Arz el-Rab), Lebanon

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Qadisha, view on Deir Mar Elisha, Lebanon (image: Arian Zwegers/Flickr CC)

One of the world's most important early Christian monastic settlements, Ouadi Qadisha (the Holy Valley) and the Forest of the Cedars of God (Horsh Arz el-Rab), located in northern Lebanon, has already been threatened by human encroachment, illegal building and inadequate conservation measures. But this World Heritage Site, which features several groves of ancient and sacred cedars dating back more than a millennia, is also facing climate risks as rising temperatures are reducing the trees’ suitable habitat and making them more susceptible to disease and attack from insects.

Today, the cedar forests have been reduced to just five percent of their original extent. According to the report, "The walled grove includes individual trees of great antiquity—of the 375 or so remaining trees, two are claimed to be over 3,000 years old, and ten to be more than 1,000 years old, of which perhaps four are older than 1,500 years."

By 2100, the report warns, the trees’ habitable zones will even further reduced “due to higher temperatures and water stress from decreased moisture availability in the Mediterranean region.”

6. Hoi An Ancient Town, Vietnam

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Japanese bridge, the symbol of Hội An (image: François Guerraz/Wikipedia)

Located on the banks of the Thu Bon River in Vietnam’s central Quang Nam province, Hoi An is an extraordinarily well-preserved example of a Southeast Asian trading port that was active from the 15th to the 19th centuries. Between the seventh and 10th centuries, Hoi An was a strategic port city for the spice trade. Since being designated a World Heritage Site in 1999, tourism to Hoi An has surged.

But much of the historic neighborhood, which is low lying, could be underwater by mid-century as a result of rising sea level.

"The city is prone to flooding during the annual rainy season, but climate change is expected to worsen conditions considerably in the future," warn the report's authors. "Nearby Cui Dai beach—a major draw for tourists and high-end tourism development—is already losing between 10 and 20 meters of land to erosion annually."

7. Lagoons of New Caledonia, France

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Coral lagoon, New Caledonia. (image: Peter Mackey/Flickr CC)

One of the three most extensive reef systems on Earth, the coral reef at New Caledonia, a special collectivity of France located in the southwest Pacific Ocean, possesses the greatest diversity of reef structures found anywhere in the world.

“The 2015-16 El Niño event caused levels of coral bleaching that alarmed the scientists who work there,” according to UCS. Primarily triggered by rapid and prolonged water temperature increases, coral bleaching is a condition that results in the expulsion of the colorful symbiotic algae that live in the corals' tissue, causing them to turn white. Coral reefs worldwide are threatened by more frequent and intense El Niños, as well as higher water temperatures.

Climate change is projected to exacerbate other, non-climate stresses on New Caledonia, such as nickel mining, which has resulted in mountain erosion, sedimentation and pollution of lagoon waters, which in turn threatens a variety of species.

8. Port, Fortresses, and Group of Monuments, Cartagena, Colombia

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Walls and cannons of the old city, Cartagena, Colombia (image: Martin St-Amant/Wikipedia)

One of Colombia’s top tourist destinations, the historic city of Cartagena, located on the nation’s northern coast, received World Heritage status for its many military fortifications, built between the 16th and 18th centuries to protect Spanish colonial and trade interests. The city was founded in 1533, and named after Cartagena, Spain, though indigenous settlement dates back to 4000 BC.

A low-lying city, Cartagena is extremely vulnerable to coastal flooding, and considered one of the most vulnerable in all of the Caribbean. “Since 1993, the rate of sea-level rise at Cartagena has been more than twice the Caribbean average, and some of the city’s poorest neighborhoods are at greatest risk,” according to UCS.

"Through all of its nearly 500-year history, Cartagena has been inextricably tied to the sea,” the report states. “The city now faces its greatest modern challenge as a result of accelerated sea-level rise, coastal flooding and shoreline erosion. Its sprawling squatter settlements and poorest neighbourhoods are on the front-line of climate change and the historic colonial center that attracts tourists, creates jobs and keeps the economy growing is under threat.”

9. Galápagos Islands, Ecuador

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Waved albatrosses at Punta Suarez, Española, Galápagos Islands (image: putneymark/Wikipedia)

Made famous for the role they played in the development of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, the Galápagos Islands, a volcanic archipelago situated about 1,000 miles from mainland Ecuador, are home to a vast number of endemic species, such as the Galápagos tortoise, the flightless cormorant, the blue-footed booby and the Galápagos penguin. Darwin described the Galápagos as “a little world within itself” and marveled at the variety of species. He said, “I never dreamed that islands, about fifty or sixty miles apart, and most of them in sight of each other, formed of precisely the same rocks, placed under a quite similar climate, rising to a nearly equal height, would have been differently tenanted.”

The islands face a number of environmental threats, such as the rapid expansion of tourism and species introduced by humans, like feral goats, cats and cattle. In addition, non-native plant species are taking over: Humans have introduced more than 700 plant species to the islands; there are only 500 native and endemic species.

A major new stress is climate change. The potential for more intense and more frequent El Niño events is particularly concerning. The report states:

The severe weakening of the Equatorial Undercurrent associated with El Niño affects the entire food web, with warmer waters reducing the upwelling of nutrients that usually characterizes the cold waters around the Galápagos, resulting in a reduction in phytoplankton availability and causing small fish and invertebrates to migrate away, as well as reducing the growth of algae on which many species rely. As a consequence, the extreme El Niño events of the 1980s and 1990s resulted in declines of up to 90 per cent in marine iguana populations, 75 percent in Galápagos penguins and 50 percent declines in sea lions and flightless cormorants.

10. Rapa Nui National Park, Easter Island, Chile

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Ahu Akivi, one of the few inland ahu, with the only moai facing the ocean, Rapa Nui. (image: Ian Sewell/Wikipedia)

Located in the southeastern Pacific Ocean, Rapa Nui, commonly known as Easter Island, is the most remote inhabited island on Earth. Famed for its iconic carved moai statues and ceremonial ahu platforms on which many of them stand, all of which date back to 1250-1500 C.E., Rapa Nui is facing significant coastal erosion due to rising sea level.

“With climate change, the greater wave heights and increased energy of the waves hitting the ahu’s vertical basalt slab walls, the ahu are expected to undergo worsening damage and the moai that sit on top of them could topple,” according to the report. “Four of the sites most important for tourism—Tongariki, Hanga Roa, Tahai and Anakena—have recently been identified as among the most seriously threatened by wave damage.”

Protecting World Heritage Sites from climate change: challenge and opportunity

While the report's findings are a sobering wakeup call that the world's most beloved and most important historical and cultural sites are under attack from the impacts of man-caused climate change, the report's authors note that these sites can be viewed as opportunities for climate mitigation and adaptation.

"For example, well-preserved forests and coastal habitats can help store carbon and provide vital ecosystem services, including natural protection against storms and floods," they write. "World Heritage sites can also act as learning laboratories for the study and mitigation of climate impacts, as well as being places to test resilient management strategies."

The authors recommend four actions that must be undertaken to protect the sites:

  1. Identify the World Heritage sites that are most vulnerable to climate change and implement policies and provide resources to increase resilience at those sites
  2. Ensure that the threat of climate impacts is taken into account in the nomination and listing process for new World Heritage sites
  3. Engage the tourism sector in efforts to manage and protect vulnerable sites in the face of climate change and educate visitors about climate threats
  4. Increase global efforts to meet the Paris Agreement climate change pledges in order to preserve World Heritage sites for future generations

The report also highlight the many non-climate stresses facing the sites, and how climate change can have a multiplying effect on these stresses, which include urbanization, pollution, natural resource extraction and tourism.

Wondering why you should care about these sites, most of which are probably very far from where you live? UNESCO has an answer:

Heritage is our legacy from the past, what we live with today, and what we pass on to future generations. Our cultural and natural heritage are both irreplaceable sources of life and inspiration. What makes the concept of World Heritage exceptional is its universal application. World Heritage sites belong to all the peoples of the world, irrespective of the territory on which they are located.

For a complete list of World Heritage sites threatened by climate change, including the Heart of Neolithic Orkney in the United Kingdom, Venice and its lagoon in Italy and the Wadden Sea, which stretches along the coasts of the Netherlands, Germany and Denmark, read the full report.

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