Climate change is damaging more World Heritage sites, report says

A person wearing a backpack photographs the Swiss Aletsch Glacier, the longest glacier in Europe.
The Aletsch glacier, the longest in Europe, is in one of the U.N.’s 83 natural World Heritage Sites that are threatened by climate change.
(Laurent Gillieron / Keystone)

Climate change is increasingly damaging the U.N.’s most cherished heritage sites, a leading conservation agency warned Wednesday, reporting that Australia’s Great Barrier Reef and dozens of other natural wonders are facing severe threats.

Shrinking glaciers, increasing fires, floods and droughts, and the bleaching of coral reefs are among the troubles facing 83 of the 252 World Heritage Sites listed by UNESCO, the U.N.’s cultural agency.

Sixteen World Heritage sites have deteriorated since the last World Heritage Outlook was released three years ago, while only eight improved, said the International Union for Conservation of Nature, which is made up of governments and civil society groups and advises UNESCO on natural threats to those sites.


“Natural World Heritage sites are amongst the world’s most precious places, and we owe it to future generations to protect them,” said the group’s director-general, Bruno Oberle. “Climate change is wreaking [havoc] on natural World Heritage, from shrinking glaciers to coral bleaching to increasingly frequent and severe fires and droughts.”

The report says the Great Barrier Reef — where ocean warming, acidification and extreme weather have added to the coral decline and shrinking marine species populations — was one of four sites in Australia under “very high” threat.

The islands of protected areas in the Gulf of California in Mexico have also entered the “critical” category in the listing. Spain’s Garajonay National Park, Olympic National Park in the United States, and Mexico’s Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve are among those under “very high” threat, the new report said.

U.S. officials say climate change, beetles and a deadly fungus are imperiling the long-term survival of a high-elevation pine tree that’s a key source of food for some threatened grizzly bears.

Dec. 1, 2020

It said while 63% of the heritage sites are classified as “good” or “good with some concerns,” 30% are of “significant concern” and 7% are in “critical” shape.

Since the group’s previous two reports, climate change has eclipsed “invasive alien species” — such as when foreign rodents, fish or plants are transplanted, accidentally or not, to new environments — as the most potent threat against such sites.

Human activities like tourism, hunting and fishing, and livestock grazing have also had an impact.