How Climate Change is Affecting World Heritage Sites


A report released last month evokes some Hollywood-style climate imagery. Although the Statue of Liberty is not yet being pummeled with waves as in the movie The Day After Tomorrow, the report does cite Hurricane Sandy’s damage to the iconic symbol and the danger of future hurricanes to it. Other World Heritage Sites also face threats from climate change. (The New York Times)

Use our resources to help students map World Heritage Sites around the world and reflect on their significance.

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If all of Earth’s ice melts thousands of years from now, scientists estimate that the seas could rise up to 216 feet, covering much of the Statue of Liberty. Graphic by Nick Kaloterakis, National Geographic


Discussion Ideas

  • What is a World Heritage Site?
    • The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), a global organization represented by more than 190 countries, has designated around 900 places World Heritage Sites because of their cultural or natural significance. These places are considered to have “outstanding universal value.”
      • Some of the most well known World Heritage sites include the Taj Mahal in India, the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, and the Grand Canyon in the United States.



  • Why does it matter if World Heritage Sites are lost?
    • These sites are chosen for a variety of reasons. Some represent feats of engineering and architecture like the Pyramids of Giza in Egypt. Others, like Yellowstone National Park, are home to unique natural splendor. Some are reminders of the darker moments in human history such as the Nazi concentration camp Auschwitz-Birkenau. It can be argued that together they tell the story of our human and natural history.
    • Heritage sites support a great deal of tourism, which is in many cases the region’s largest industry.


  • Tourism and World Heritage have a complicated relationship. How are tourism industries both reliant on World Heritage Sites and partially responsible for their decline?
    • According to the report, tourism is responsible for 9 percent of the global gross domestic product and provides one in every 11 jobs. World Heritage Sites are some of the most iconic tourist destinations on Earth, and many people’s livelihoods depend on their continued existence.
    • At the same time, tourism often requires energy-intensive transportation via airplanes or cars. 5 percent of global carbon emissions can be traced back to tourism, and that number is expected to grow as the industry rapidly expands.


  • What are some of the recommendations made in the report for protecting heritage sites for the future?
    • Include a “climate vulnerability assessment” as part of the World Heritage Site nomination process.
    • Add more wilderness areas to the World Heritage List to protect intact ecosystems.
    • Develop strategies for the tourism industry to respond and adapt to climate change, including by reducing emissions.



The New York Times: Report Warns of Climate Change Disasters That Rival Hollywood’s

UNESCO, the United Nations Environment Program, and the Union for Concerned Scientists: World Heritage and Tourism in a Changing Climate

Yahoo Travel Inspirations: The World Heritage Sites at Risk from Climate Change

National Geographic: Mapping World Heritage

National Geographic: Climate Change Is Here

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