Coral reefs are among the most threatened ecosystems of natural World Heritage sites, a new report shows.
The number of natural World Heritage sites threatened by climate change has grown from 35 to 62 in just three years, with climate change being the fastest growing threat they face, according to a new report published by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), at the UN climate change conference in Bonn, Germany.
The IUCN World Heritage Outlook 2, an update of the 2014 IUCN World Heritage Outlook, evaluates for the first time changes in conservation prospects of all 241 natural World Heritage sites. It reviews the threats, protection and management of the sites, and the state of the unique features which have earned them their prestigious World Heritage status.
According to the report, climate change impacts, such as coral bleaching and glacier loss, affect a quarter of all sites – compared to one in seven sites in 2014 – and place coral reefs and glaciers among the most threatened ecosystems.
Other ecosystems, such as wetlands, low-lying deltas, permafrost and fire sensitive ecosystems are also affected.
“Protection of World Heritage sites is an international responsibility of the same governments that have signed up to the Paris Agreement,” says Inger Andersen, IUCN Director General. “This IUCN report sends a clear message to the delegates gathered here in Bonn: climate change acts fast and is not sparing the finest treasures of our planet.
“The scale and the pace at which it is damaging our natural heritage underline the need for urgent and ambitious national commitments and actions to implement the Paris Agreement,” Andersen said.
World Heritage-listed coral reefs, such as the Aldabra Atoll in the Indian Ocean (the world’s second-largest coral atoll), the Belize Barrier Reef in the Atlantic (the largest barrier reef in the northern hemisphere), and the Great Barrier Reef (Earth’s largest reef), have been affected by disastrous mass coral bleaching events over the last three years, due to rising sea temperatures. The Great Barrier Reef, for example, has suffered widespread bleaching, with up to 85% of surveyed reefs affected in 2016.
“Natural World Heritage sites play a crucial role supporting local economies and livelihoods,” says Tim Badman, Director of IUCN’s World Heritage Programme. “Their destruction can thus have devastating consequences that go beyond their exceptional beauty and natural value. In Peru’s Huascarán National Park, for example, melting glaciers affect water supplies and contaminate water and soil due to the release of heavy metals previously trapped under ice. This adds to the urgency of our challenge to protect these places.”
The broader findings of the report show further challenges to World Heritage. Other threats, such as invasive species, unsustainable tourism or infrastructure development, are also increasing. They affect ecological processes and threaten the survival of species within the sites. Invasive alien species are the most widespread of all threats. Their impacts are often aggravated by climate change, which facilitates their spread.
Overall, the report finds that 29% of World Heritage sites face significant concerns and 7% have a critical outlook. Two-thirds of the sites are estimated to be well conserved in the near future, around the same overall number as in 2014.
Image credit: Romello Williams