Our directory of things of interest

University Directory

Threatened heritage: the climate risk

The Great Blue Hole is part of the Belize Barrier Reef, one of the sixty-two UNESCO World Heritage Sites threatened by climate change The Great Blue Hole is part of the Belize Barrier Reef, one of the sixty-two UNESCO World Heritage Sites threatened by climate change Wollertz
06 Dec
Sixty-two of the natural World Heritage Sites are now at risk from the impact of climate change, a number which has nearly doubled in just three years

If we need evidence of the growing impact humans are having on the environment, look no further than the 241 UNESCO Natural (or mixed Cultural and Natural) World Heritage Sites, those sites of outstanding universal value containing ‘areas of exceptional natural beauty and aesthetic importance’, ‘outstanding examples representing major stages of earth's history’, ‘outstanding examples representing significant on-going ecological and biological processes’, or containing ‘the most important and significant natural habitats for in-situ conservation of biological diversity’. In 2014, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) signalled that thirty-five of these sites were threatened by climate change. Just three years later, this number has rapidly escalated, with at least sixty-two now indicated to be at risk.

Predictably, coral reefs feature especially severely, with Australia's Great Barrier Reef, the Seychelles' Aldabra Atoll, and the Belize Barrier Reef all classified as having a ‘very high’ threat rating. Oceania, Central America, and the Caribbean are the regions of the world with the most climate change-threatened World Heritage Sites, but the list also includes European sites such as the Pyrenees and the Wadden Sea, as well as everything from the Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks and the Everglades National Park, to Kilimanjaro National Park and the Historic Sanctuary of Machu Picchu.

evergladesEverglades National Park, Florida, USA (Image: pisaphotography)

‘Today we see that climate change is already causing significant impacts on different types of ecosystems and natural features contained in these sites, from coral reefs and coastal areas to glaciers and fire-prone grasslands,’ reflects Peter Shadie, Senior Adviser at the IUCN’s World Heritage Programme. ‘It results in a range of impacts and consequences, including coral bleaching, sea-level rise, increasing frequency and severity of fires. There appear to be a multitude of factors causing the rapid increase in sites affected, including new studies documenting the tangible impacts attributable to climate change and the prevalence of invasive species impacts, as the number one threat to sites and often driven by changes in climate.’

machu picchuThe Historic Sanctuary of Machu Picchu, Peru (Image: saiko3p)

Overall, the IUCN conclude that invasive species, mass tourism, and climate change are currently the biggest threats to all 241 natural sites. However, while the former are not threatening significantly more sites than they were three years ago, the immense scale of the latter means it is rapidly closing in on becoming the most substantial threat. ‘Because of its global nature,’ adds Shadie, ‘climate change affects sites in countries all over the world. While no country can address climate change on its own, investment in adaptation measures and effective management is important. These measures can help reduce negative impacts and help sites adapt better.’

Related items

Subscribe and Save!

geo line break v3

Free eBooks - Geographical Newsletter

Sign up for our weekly newsletter today and get a FREE eBook collection!

geo line break v3

University of Winchester

geo line break v3


Aberystwyth University University of Greenwich The University of Derby




Travel the Unknown

NEVER MISS A STORY - Follow Geographical on Social

Want to stay up to date with breaking Geographical stories? Join the thousands following us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram and stay informed about the world.

More articles in NATURE...


In contrast to established wisdom, one group of scientists believe…


Parkesine, celluloid and Bakelite – the first three kinds of…


Flat and level landscapes might not have much to offer…


Winning entries include meerkats, zebra sharks and courting nudibranches


The UN’s World Ocean Day is a day to celebrate…


Breathe easier this World Environment day with this collection of…


A 50-year look at the activity of aphids, moths, butterflies…


The British Isles are packed with natural landmarks that serve…


The prestigious photography awards to go on display in some…


The discovery of a slow-motion earthquake near Istanbul, which took…


The 2014 to 2016 marine heatwave, which took place off…


Marco Magrini discovers that hydrogen is back, but hopefully not…


 A ten-year analysis of chimpanzees has revealed that the presence…


The return of the pine marten to UK forests has…


A project in Orkney is converting excess wind energy into…


Mountains provide a dramatic sight at the best of times,…


A surge in reports of dead hares has resulted in…


Four scientists have banded together to make the case against the farming of octopuses, arguing…


As planetary oil consumption hits the 100-million-barrel mark Marco Magrini…


A ship that ran aground early in February has been…