Iconic World Heritage glaciers will disappear by 2050: UNESCO

Paris —  UNESCO data highlight the accelerated melting of glaciers in World Heritage sites, with glaciers in a third of sites set to disappear by 2050.

But it is still possible to save the other two-thirds if the rise in global temperatures does not exceed 1.5°C compared to the pre-industrial period. This will be a major challenge for COP27.

50 UNESCO World Heritage sites are home to glaciers, representing almost 10% of the Earth’s total glacierized area. They include the highest (next to Mt. Everest), the longest (in Alaska), and the last remaining glaciers in Africa, amongst others, giving a representative overview of the general situation of glaciers in the world.

But a new study by UNESCO, in partnership with IUCN, shows these glaciers have been retreating at an accelerated rate since 2000 due to CO2 emissions, which are warming temperatures. They are currently losing 58 billion tons of ice every year – equivalent to the combined annual water use of France and Spain– and are responsible for nearly 5% of observed global sea-level rise.

The report concludes that glaciers in a third of the 50 World Heritage sites are condemned to disappear by 2050, regardless of efforts to limit temperature increases. But it is still possible to save the glaciers in the remaining two-thirds of sites if the rise in temperatures does not exceed 1.5°C compared to the pre-industrial period.

“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. COP27 will have a crucial role to help find solutions to this issue. UNESCO is determined to support states in pursuing this goal,” said Audrey Azoulay, UNESCO’s Director-General.

In addition to drastically reduced carbon emissions, UNESCO is advocating for the creation of an international fund for glacier monitoring and preservation. Such a fund would support comprehensive research, promote exchange networks between all stakeholders and implement early warning and disaster risk reduction measures.

Half of humanity depends directly or indirectly on glaciers as their water source for domestic use, agriculture, and power. Glaciers are also pillars of biodiversity, feeding many ecosystems.

“When glaciers melt rapidly, millions of people face water scarcity and the increased risk of natural disasters such as flooding, and millions more may be displaced by the resulting rise in sea levels. This study highlights the urgent need to cut greenhouse gas emissions and invest in Nature-based Solutions, which can help mitigate climate change and allow people to better adapt to its impacts,” said IUCN Director General Dr. Bruno Oberle.

Endangered glaciers by region

Africa:

  • According to available data, glaciers in all World Heritage sites in Africa will very likely be gone by 2050, incl. Kilimanjaro National Park and Mount Kenya

Asia:

  • Glaciers in Three Parallel Rivers of Yunnan Protected Areas (China) – #1 highest mass loss relative to 2000 (57.2%) and also the fastest melting glacier on the List
  • Glaciers in Western Tien-Shan (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan) have shrunk by 27% since 2000

Europe:

  • Glaciers in Pyrenees Mont Perdu (France, Spain) – very likely to disappear by 2050
  • Glaciers in The Dolomites (Italy) – very likely to disappear by 2050

Latin America:

  • Glaciers in Los Alerces National Park (Argentina) – #2 highest mass loss relative to 2000 (45.6%)
  • Glaciers in Huascaran National Park (Peru) have shrunk by 15% since 2000

North America:

  • Glaciers in Yellowstone National Park (United States of America) – very likely to disappear by 2050
  • Glaciers in Yosemite National Park (United States of America) – very likely to disappear by 2050
  • Glaciers in Waterton Glacier International Peace Park (Canada, United States of America) have lost 26.5% of their volume in 20 years

Oceania:

  • Glaciers in Te Wahipounamu – South West New Zealand (New Zealand) have lost almost 20% of their volume since 2000

ETH Zurich, the Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow, and Landscape Research (WSL), and the Space Geophysics and Oceanography Studies Laboratory (LEGOS) of the French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) contributed in this new study.