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News | By 2100, the glaciers in the UNESCO Sites will have lost up to 60% of their volume

kilimanjaro_m._huss_iucn World Heritage
23 May 2019

This news comes from IUCN, the International Union for Conservation of Nature, which recently published a comparative study of the 19,000 glaciers in World Heritage Sites around the world.

The IUCN study

The study is entitled “Disappearing World Heritage Glaciers as a Keystone of Nature Conservation in a Changing Climate” and examines for the first time the 19,000 glaciers in UNESCO sites around the world – around 9% of the Earth’s glaciers.

As Peter Shadie, director of the IUCN‘s “World Heritage Programme” has made clear, the loss of these glaciers would be a real tragedy and would have severe repercussions for water availability, sea levels and weather patterns.

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Glaciers (red dots) located in natural World Heritage sites (white polygons). Their number and area are scaled with circle size and color, respectively. Site names are abbreviated, and their full names are given in Table S2. Sites abbreviated in bold are those where glaciers were one of the primary reasons for inscription on the World Heritage List. Gray polygons are glacierized regions, and black dots correspond to all other inventoried glaciers (RGI Consortium, 2017, in addition to the two continental ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica).

The glaciers in the Dolomites, in particular, have an increasingly short life expectancy, sharing this alarming feature with various other Natural World Heritage Sites: the Great Aletsch Glacier in the Swiss Alps, the Khumbu Glacier in the Himalayas, and the Jakobshavn Isbrae in Greenland, to name but a few. The Los Glaciares National Park in Argentina contains some of the world’s largest glaciers, and by 2100 they are expected to lose around 60% of their volume. In North America, the glaciers in the Waterton Glacier International Peace Park, the Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks and the Olympic National Park could all be reduced by 70%, while in Europe some of the glaciers in the Pyrénées-Mont Perdu Site are expected to disappear before 2040.

The situation in the Dolomites

Are the Dolomites among those World Heritage sites that will lose their glaciers by 2100? We asked Christian Casarotto, a glaciologist and researcher at MUSE in Trento, who has studied many glaciers in the Alps and Dolomites. He gave us his verdict:

“If we look at their average behaviour, yes, the glaciers in the Dolomites could disappear by 2100. There will be repercussions, and these will affect the water sector (electricity production and agriculture), the economy (ski tourism and high altitude activities associated with snow and glaciers), and the overall management of an area suffering from greater hydrogeological instability as a result of changes to the permafrost.”

And what about the Marmolada glacier in particular?

“In the mid 19th century, the Main Marmolada Glacier covered an area of 5.3 square kilometres. Since then, the shrinkage of the glacier has caused it to separate into various parts (the Main Glacier, Central Glacier, Punta Penia Glacier, Western Glacier); added together, these now only cover an area of one and a half square kilometres (data from Casarotto & Trenti, 2015). So, the Marmolada glacier has shrunk by 70% in the last 150 years! The most worrying aspect is the speed with which the surface of the glacier is shrinking nowadays, compared to the past. In the middle of the last century the glacier retreated by an average of 5 metres a year. It is now retreating by 20 metres, with annual losses in ice thickness ranging from 2 metres in the uppermost parts to 4 metres at lower levels.”

As to the possible “cures”, there is no escaping the fact that we need to assume individual, collective and global responsibility, but decisions about how to manage the whole Dolomite area also play an essential part…

“Basically, this glacial retreat is due to the increase in temperatures: an increase caused by the emission of anthropogenic greenhouse gases (almost all climatologists now agree that human activity is the main cause). To reduce emissions of greenhouse gases we therefore need changes to our lifestyles and to the global economy, together with strategies to adapt to the inevitable rise in temperatures, which will continue throughout the century, even if we reduce emissions. This adaptation should also include important and careful choices about how to manage the whole area of the Dolomites, a world heritage for all humanity that we need to pass on intact to future generations.”

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