37% of UNESCO Heritage Sites Damaged by Climate Change

Graphic: Annabel Driussi for Our Daily Planet

By Natasha Lasky, ODP Contributing Writer

Many of the world’s most well-known treasures are UNESCO heritage sites, from the Great Barrier Reef to the Taj Mahal. Yet dozens of these sites are under threat from climate change. Flooding, droughts, fires, and the bleaching of coral reefs have marred 83 of the 252 World Heritage Sites. In a new report, the International Union for Conservation of Nature found that sixteen World Heritage sites had deteriorated over the last three years, while only eight improved.  Overall, the report found that 30% of world heritage sites are of “significant concern” and 7% are in “critical” danger.  The other threats besides climate change are invasive species and unsustainable tourism, though the pandemic has lessened the tourism impact.  The report also noted that conservation measures have successfully preserved many sites, providing support to the movement to protect 30% of the planet by 2030.

Why this Matters: UNESCO World Heritage sites are incredibly important ecosystems and cultural symbols, and it would be a tragedy to lose them.  IUCN Director-General Bruno Oberle told PBS Newshour, “Natural World Heritage sites are amongst the world’s most precious places, and we owe it to future generations to protect them. The IUCN World Heritage Outlook 3 reveals the damage climate change is wreaking on natural World Heritage, from shrinking glaciers to coral bleaching to increasingly frequent and severe fires and droughts. As the international community defines new objectives to conserve biodiversity, this report signals the urgency with which we must tackle environmental challenges together at the planetary scale.

Other Threats 

In previous IUCN reports, “invasive alien species” were the biggest threats against UNESCO world heritage sites, meaning that foreign rodents, fish, or plants were accidentally transplanted to new ecosystems, wreaking havoc on their new habitats. However, this year, climate change has taken the top spot, with tourism, hunting and fishing, and livestock grazing as well as invasive species also causing damage to sites.  Even though a decrease in tourists may reduce the human toll on some ecosystems, there is also a definite negative impact from less tourism as well.  When sites are shut down or have fewer tourists, it results in a significant loss of revenue and there is an increase in illegal activities that are on the rise with less capacity to monitor sites and enforce rules that protect them.

Interestingly, threats varied greatly from region to region with hunting and fishing becoming one of the most prevalent high or very high threats in Africa, Asia, Central America, and the Caribbean. In the Arab States, solid waste is one of the top three threats, particularly due to plastic pollution. The report concludes that as a result, conservation approaches must be tailored by region.  According to IUCN’s report, in addition to the Great Barrier Reef, islands in the Gulf of California are under the “critical” category, and Spain’s Garajonay National Park, the United States’ Olympic National Park, and Mexico’s Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve are under “very high” threat.

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