Iconic glaciers of Kilimanjaro, Yellowstone to disappear by 2050 due to global warming: UN

Some of the world's most famous glaciers are set to disappear over the next 30 years, regardless of how much the planet warms, a new report from UNESCO says.

'Rapid reduction' in global emissions needed to save other glaciers, including Canadian Rockies, UNESCO says

A view of the Marmolada Glacier, on the highest peak of Italy's Dolomites, on July 5, two days after a massive section of the glacier broke off, causing a deadly avalanche. Scientists attributed the collapse to record-high temperatures in the region. UNESCO says glaciers in the Dolomites are among those set to disappear by 2050 due to global warming. (Jan Hetfleisch/Getty Images)

Some of the world's most famous glaciers, including in the Dolomites in Italy, the Yosemite and Yellowstone parks in the United States, and Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania are set to disappear by 2050 due to global warming — whatever the temperature rise scenario, according to a UNESCO report.

UNESCO, the United Nations cultural agency, monitors some 18,600 glaciers across 50 of its World Heritage sites and said that glaciers in one-third of World Heritage sites will disappear by 2050 regardless of the applied climate scenario.

While the rest can be saved by keeping global temperature rise below 1.5 C relative to pre-industrial levels, in a business-as-usual emissions scenario, about 50 per cent of these World Heritage glaciers could almost entirely disappear by 2100.

"This report is a call to action. Only a rapid reduction in our CO2 emissions levels can save glaciers and the exceptional biodiversity that depends on them," Audrey Azoulay, UNESCO's director general, said in a statement.

She noted that the UN's COP27 climate conference will have a crucial role to help find solutions to this issue.

A glacier is covered with plastic to protect it from melting amid warming temperatures.
Tourists stand outside an ice cave that is covered with protective material to prevent the ice from melting at the Rhone Glacier in Obergoms, Switzerland, on Sept. 1. UNESCO warns that one-third of glaciers in World Heritage Sites will disappear by 2050 due to global warming. (Denis Balibouse/Reuters)

World Heritage glaciers as defined by UNESCO represent about 10 per cent of the world's glacier areas and include some of the world's best-known glaciers, whose loss is highly visible as they are focal points for global tourism.

Rockies at risk

The report says glaciers in Canada's Rocky Mountain parks have lost 15.9 per cent of their glacier ice mass relative to 2000 levels, putting their future at risk.

Canadian glacier researcher John Pomeroy says UNESCO's findings are similar to his own.

A large glacier hugs the side of a mountain against a blue sky.
A view of Crowfoot Glacier near Banff National Park in Alberta. University of Saskatchewan glacier researcher John Pomeroy says Crowfoot is one of several glaciers in the Canadian Rockies at risk from climate change. (Axel Tardieu/CBC)

"By 2050, if you were to drive down the Icefields Parkway, through Banff and Jasper National Park, you … almost certainly would not be able to see glaciers at most of the current viewpoints where you see glaciers," Pomeroy, the Canada Research Chair in Water Resources and Climate Change at the University of Saskatchewan, told CBC News on Thursday.

"The Columbia Icefield will still be there, but glaciers like Peyto Glacier will be gone, Crowfoot will be gone, vestiges of Victoria Glacier at the back of Lake Louise will be gone," he said. "And [there will be] just a bit of ice at the top of the icefields that should linger through the end of the century, depending on how things go."

Other glaciers can still be saved, Pomeroy said, but the level of challenge required would depend on how much global temperatures were reigned in.

"The 1.5 C warming [target] is not impossible, but it would take very, very energetic action right now. Even if we miss that, and it's 2 C instead of 3 C, that's still so much better."

WATCH | Researcher says glaciers in Canadian Rockies face dire future:

Canada's Rocky Mountain glaciers at risk of melting, researcher warns

11 months ago
Duration 1:21
As the UN warns iconic glaciers around the world could disappear by 2050, University of Saskatchewan researcher John Pomeroy says Canada's glaciers face a similar fate without urgent action on climate change.

Melting glaciers add to rising sea levels

While droughts in Canada were contributing to glacial melt, that wasn't the end of climate-related impacts from the loss of the landmarks.

The ice melt into streams and rivers contributes to rising sea levels and flooding in coastal communities, Pomeroy said, "so it's problematic all the way around, as [the glaciers] disappear."

The UNESCO report's lead author, Tales Carvalho, told Reuters that World Heritage glaciers lose on average some 52 billion tonnes of ice every year — equivalent to the total annual volume of water used in France and Spain together — and contribute to almost five per cent of global observed sea-level rise.

A glacier monitoring team climbs Switzerland's Gries glacier during a trip to check measuring equipment on Sept. 2. UNESCO says many glaciers have been retreating at an accelerated rate since 2000. (Denis Balibouse/Reuters)

UNESCO recommends that given the inevitable further shrinking of many of these glaciers in the near future, local authorities should make glaciers a focus of policy, by improving monitoring and research and by implementing disaster risk-reduction measures.

With files from CBC's Laura McQuillan

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