Climate change threatens World Heritage sites, report says

Dozens of iconic tourist destinations like Venice, Stonehenge and Old Town Lunenburg, N.S., are threatened by risks linked to climate change, from rising sea levels to extreme weather, says the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

Venice, Stonehenge, Easter Island, Old Town Lunenburg, Galapagos Islands, Statue of Liberty in danger

Dozens of iconic tourist destinations including Venice, Stonehenge and Old Town Lunenburg, N.S., are threatened by risks linked to climate change, from rising sea levels to extreme weather, says the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

Climate change-related threats to 31 World Heritage sites in 29 countries are highlighted in a new report released by UNESCO, the United Nations Environment Program and the Union of Concerned Scientists today.

There are 1,031 World Heritage sites around the world, representing sites of "outstanding universal value" because of their importance in capturing human cultural traditions, creative genius, history or exceptional natural phenomena.

Climate change could eventually even cause some World Heritage sites to lose their status.- Adam Markham, lead author of the report

"Some Easter Island statues are at risk of being lost to the sea because of coastal erosion. Many of the world's most important coral reefs, including in the islands of New Caledonia in the western Pacific, have suffered unprecedented coral bleaching linked to climate change this year," said Adam Markham, lead author of the report and deputy director of the Climate and Energy Program at UCS, in a statement.

"Climate change could eventually even cause some World Heritage sites to lose their status."

The effects could be a blow the tourism industry and economies of some of the countries where the World Heritage sites are found, the report said, noting that many developing countries are quite reliant on tourism revenue.

A study published in 2014 had already noted that 136 World Heritage sites are threatened by rising sea levels over the next 2,000 years. However, the new report also looks at the impact of other threats, including wildfires, increasing temperatures and droughts.

Here's a look at some of the climate change threats faced by 10 of the sites listed in the report:

Old Town Lunenburg, Canada

This town, founded in 1753 on the southern coast of Nova Scotia, is considered to be the best example of a planned British colonial settlement townscape in North America. Rising seas could put some of its coastal land permanently underwater, and lead to damage to buildings and roads from storm surges and flooding.

Old Town Lunenburg, N.S. (Gary Yim/Shutterstock)

Yellowstone National Park, U.S.A.

Yellowstone, created in 1872, was the world's first national park. It's known for amazing natural features such as the Old Faithful geyser and more than half the world's hot springs, mud pots, steam vents and geysers. It's also home to herds of bison, along with moose, wolves and bears. According to the report, a big climate change threat for the park is wildfires, which could increase the annual burned area by 600 per cent or more due to earlier snowmelt, warmer temperatures and a longer fire season.

The Grand Prismatic Spring in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming, is the largest in the United States and third largest in the world. (Jim Urquhart/Reuters)

Venice, Italy

Venice is a city known for its beautiful Byzantine, gothic, renaissance and baroque buildings built amid a network of canals and 338 bridges. It's one of the world's most popular tourist destinations, with 10 million overnight visits in 2013 and at least twice as many day visitors, the report says. However, it's one of the World Heritage sites most at threat from sea-level rise.

Gondoliers row in an empty Grand Canal in Venice. (Manuel Silvestri/Reuters)

Wadi Rum, Jordan

Wadi Rum is located in the deserts of Jordan, featuring narrow gorges, high cliffs, caverns and natural arches that bear more than 45,000 rock carvings and inscriptions dating back 12,000 years. Climate change is leading to warmer and drier conditions and more extreme weather. That could threaten desert animals such as sooty falcons and Arabian oryx that live there and make it difficult for the local Bedouin people to get enough water.

The Wadi Rum and its stunning landscape is listed as a UNESCO world heritage protected site, with the organization noting its ancient rock carvings and archaeological remains. (Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty Images)

Komodo National Park, Indonesia

This park is the only place in the world where the Komodo dragon, the world's largest living species of lizard, is found. However, climate change is causing increased rainfall that threatens to flood lizard breeding areas and change the vegetation in ways that make them less hospitable to the lizards.

A Komodo dragon searches the shore of Komodo island in Indonesia for prey. (Romeo Gacad/AFP/Getty Images)

Rapa Nui National Park, Easter Island, Chile

This park is famous for its huge moai statues and ceremonial ahu platforms, built between 1250 and 1500 AD. Most of them are located directly on the coast and are already facing coastal erosion. Bigger, more powerful waves are expected with climate change that could cause greater damage.

These are some of the 390 abandoned statues on the hillside of the Rano Raraku volcano in Easter Island, 3,700 km off the coast of Chile. (Martin Bernetti/AFP/Getty Images)

Statue of Liberty, U.S.A.

This statue has stood in New York Harbor welcoming millions of immigrants and tourists to America from around the world since 1876. That was when the statue, designed by sculptor Frederic Bartholdi and engineer Gustave Eiffel, was given to the U.S.A. by France in celebration of the 100th anniversary of American independence. The statue is vulnerable to sea level rise and extreme weather. It was closed for nine months following damage from Hurricane Sandy in 2011.

Cloud covers lower Manhattan and the site of the former World Trade Center in New York on Sept. 11, 2002. (Ray Stubblebine/Reuters)

Stonehenge, U.K.

UNESCO considers Stonehenge, located in southern England, to be one of the most remarkable Stone Age remains in the world. It's listed as the largest and most architecturally sophisticated stone circle on Earth. Climate change has led to increasing rainfall, heavier rains, and worsening floods that can damage the site by creating gullies. The wetter conditions are also expected to increase the impact of visitors walking on the site.

A view of Stonehenge during the annual Perseid meteor shower in the night sky in Salisbury Plain, southern England on Aug. 13, 2013. (Kieran Doherty/Reuters)

Galapagos Islands, Ecuador

Charles Darwin famously developed his theory of natural selection after visiting the Galapagos Islands in 1835. The islands are home to hundreds of species found nowhere else on Earth, such as giant tortoises and marine iguanas, making them a top wildlife tourism destination. Climate change effects that could threaten the fragile ecosystem include rising sea levels, warming temperatures, ocean acidification, changes in rainfall and extreme weather.

The view from the top of Bartolome Island in the Galapagos. (Jorge Silva/Reuters)

Rice Terraces of the Philippine Cordilleras

These beautiful terraces were built over 2,000 years by the indigenous Ifugao people. However, warming temperatures and more frequent extreme rainfall due to climate change has been causing landslides and erosion. The rice strains developed and grown here are also less adaptable to rapid climate change than modern rice strains, the report warns.


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?