These UNESCO World Heritage Glaciers Are Set to Disappear by 2050

Glaciers in beloved travel destinations, including Yellowstone, Yosemite, and Italy’s Dolomites, will be gone within the next 30 years, new research shows. And the effects of that loss will be catastrophic.

A view of Yosemite's Glacier Point with the Half Dome peak in the foreground and glaciers in the background

Take a good look at the glaciers in Yosemite—in a few decades they will be gone, according to a new report.

Photo by Shutterstock

Of the world’s rich collection of UNESCO World Heritage sites, 50 are home to glaciers. The glaciers in one-third of those sites are set to disappear by 2050—but there is still hope for the glaciers in the remaining two-thirds of the sites if the world institutes swift and severe climate action, according to a new report published by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

The report was released ahead of this week’s United Nations climate summit, COP27, as a call to action for the global leaders meeting in Egypt.

“Only a rapid reduction in our CO2 emissions levels can save glaciers and the exceptional biodiversity that depends on them,” UNESCO stated in its November 3 report. “COP27 will have a crucial role to help find solutions to this issue.”

UNESCO World Heritage sites that are home to glaciers encompass 18,600 of these slow-moving masses of ice, or nearly 10 percent of the Earth’s glacierized areas. The study, which was conducted by UNESCO in partnership with the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), found that due to global warming these glaciers are currently losing 58 billion tons of ice every year—or the equivalent of the amount of water used annually by France and Spain combined.

The report concludes that glaciers in a third of the sites are destined to vanish by 2050, whether or not we manage to limit the global rise in temperature. “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,” UNESCO stated.

The Dolomites, Italy

The Dolomites in Italy are on the UNESCO World Heritage list for their outstanding natural beauty. Unfortunately, the glaciers in this striking mountain range are at extreme risk.

Photo by Shutterstock

Some of the most at-risk UNESCO World Heritage glaciers

  • Glaciers in Yellowstone National Park
    Status: Very likely to disappear by 2050
  • Glaciers in Yosemite National Park
    Status: Very likely to disappear by 2050
  • Glaciers in Africa
    Status: All of the UNESCO World Heritage sites in Africa that include glaciers will very likely be gone by 2050, including Kilimanjaro National Park and Mount Kenya
  • Glaciers in Three Parallel Rivers of Yunnan Protected Areas (China)
    Status: The fastest melting glacier on the UNESCO list with the highest mass loss since 2000 (57.2 percent)
  • Glaciers in Pyrenees Mont Perdu (France and Spain)
    Status: Very likely to disappear by 2050
  • Glaciers in the Dolomites (Italy)
    Status: Very likely to disappear by 2050

Is limiting global warming to 1.5°C actually possible?

Whether or not it is possible to limit global warming to 1.5°C—a benchmark that if surpassed represents irreversible damage for glaciers and the environment as well as catastrophic consequences for vulnerable populations, animal species, and landscapes—is among the most pressing issues being addressed by the nearly 200 representatives at COP27 this week. A report issued earlier this year by the World Meteorological Organization found that there is a 50:50 chance that the average global temperature will increase by 1.5°C for at least one of the next five years.

Armed with a mounting sense of urgency amid rising sea levels, flooding, drought, heat waves, wildfires, and storms, COP27 leaders reconvened this year in an effort to drive enough tangible change to make feasible the 1.5°C cap set by the Paris Climate Agreement.

“Every corner of human activity must align with our Paris commitment of pursuing efforts to limit temperature rise to 1.5 degrees,” stated U.N. Climate Change executive secretary Simon Stiell in his opening remarks at COP27 on November 7.

U.N. groups called on countries and private companies to fund, commit to, and carry out their net zero carbon pledges with greenhouse gas emission reduction and elimination largely seen as the main path to reaching the 1.5°C cap.

UNESCO is hoping that in addition to the large-scale carbon emission reduction goals being pushed at COP27, an international fund for glacier monitoring and preservation will be developed to support further research, to implement early warning systems, and to carry out disaster risk reduction measures for the planet’s precious ice.

“Half of humanity depends directly or indirectly on glaciers as their water source for domestic use, agriculture, and power,” UNESCO stated. “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.”

Michelle Baran is the senior travel news editor at AFAR where she oversees breaking news, travel intel, pandemic coverage, airline, cruise, and consumer travel news. Baran joined AFAR in August 2018 after an 11-year run as a senior editor and reporter at leading travel industry newspaper Travel Weekly.
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