A World Heritage site since 1981, the Great Barrier Reef is one of the world’s most complex and diverse ecosystems, with at least 400 species of hard coral, 150 species of soft corals and sea fans, and more than 2,900 individual reefs and some of the most important seagrass meadows in the world. It teems with marine life of all sorts, including more than 1600 fish species, seabirds, seahorses, whales, dolphins, crocodiles, dugongs and endangered green turtles. The reef extends for 2,300km along the coast of Queensland in Northeast Australia and has evolved over a period of 15,000 years. The region is important for the indigenous heritage of First Australians who are Traditional Owners including Aboriginal and Torres Straits Islander people. Climate change threatens hunting and fishing as well as other traditional and cultural practices. Some sacred sites are also at risk for the more than 70 Traditional Owner groups for whom natural resources are inseparable from cultural identity.
Today, tourism (including touring, diving, beaches, sailing, fishing and cruising) is the most important economic sector in the GBR communities, contributing $5.2 billion dollars to the Australian economy in 2012 and supporting 64,000 jobs, or about 90% of the total economic activity in the region. Visitors spent nearly 43 million total nights in the GBR region in 2012, of which nearly 2 million nights were on the reef, mainly at Cairns and the Whitsunday Islands. Direct reef-related tourism alone contributes 4,800 jobs. Approximately 500 commercial boats operate bringing tourists out to dive and snorkel on the reef, and there can be negative impacts associated with this, including damage from fuel spills and walking and dropping anchors on fragile corals. Tourism infrastructure, along with other coastal developments, can cause habitat degradation and damaging pollution and sediment run-off. Australia is the world’s fourth largest coal producer and debate currently swirls around the risks embodied in plans to expand coal mining and coal shipping near the Great Barrier Reef.
The biggest threat to the GBR today, and to its ecosystems services, biodiversity, heritage values and tourism economy, is climate change, including warming sea temperatures, accelerating rates of sea level rise, changing weather patterns and ocean acidification. Coral reefs worldwide are being directly impacted by warming waters and ocean acidification, and climate change is exacerbating other localized stresses. Ocean acidification is occurring because of increased levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. A significant portion of this CO2 is being absorbed by the oceans and the resulting increases in seawater acidity reduces the capacity of some marine life, such as corals, to build their calcium carbonate based skeletons. Significant drops in coral growth rate have been recorded in the last two decades for massive Porites corals on the Great Barrier Reef.
Other significant threats to the reef include coastal development, agricultural run-off pollution, port-based shipping activities, illegal fishing and outbreaks of the coral-eating crown-of-thorns starfish. Assailed by multiple threats, the status of the GBR has been assessed as being poor and deteriorating. Half of its coral cover has been lost over the last three decades. Unusually high sea temperatures have caused nine mass coral bleaching events on the GBR since 1979, and until this year, the worst had been in 1998 and 2002 (Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority 2012, Steffen et al 2009, Hughes et al 2015). But higher water temperatures and a severe El Nino have been pushing corals into the danger zone all over the world in 2015-16, and the Great Barrier Reef is currently suffering the most severe bleaching episode ever recorded.
Coral bleaching occurs when higher than usual maximum temperatures disrupt the relationship between corals and the photosynthetic zooxanthelae algae that live in their tissues in a vital and mutually beneficial biological relationship. Bleaching can kill corals, but depending on the severity of the impact and local factors they can also recover. The same is true for coral damage from storms, but damaged or bleached corals and reefs need time to recover. All indications are that bleaching events will become more frequent and tropical storms more intense with continued global warming, and that this combined with a continued trend in warming water and ocean acidification will be massively detrimental to the GBR. The current bleaching episode has affected more than 90% of the reef, with the worst damage being in the northern region where surveys have confirmed 50% mortality in some places.
Without global efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions coupled with local management responses to increase resilience, current projections suggest that coral cover could decline to 5-10% of the GBR by the early 2020s from 28% in 1985—a potential loss of 80% in just 40 years. Similar fears are associated with one of the other keystone ecosystems of the GBR, seagrass meadows representing 20% of the world’s 72 seagrass species. These shallow-water habitats provide vital nursery areas for fish and shrimps, critical food resources for turtles and dugongs, and act as carbon sinks, sequestering organic carbon in marine sediments. The combination of agricultural runoff, fishery impacts and climate change may exceed seagrass beds’ natural ability to adapt. Sea turtles too are at risk from climate change as high temperatures and sea level rise impact their breeding and nesting beaches.
Spurred by the direct evidence of climate change already impacting the GBR, degradation of the reefs and the likelihood of much worse to come, the Australian government has begun to plan and implement actions to reduce the risk of future damage. At the core of the adaptation strategy are efforts to build ecosystem resilience, fill gaps in scientific knowledge, and monitor environmental, social and economic impacts of climate change. Collaborative management strategies are also being developed and tested with local communities, Traditional Owners, as well as with business and industry. The GBR was also the first World Heritage property for which a comprehensive Tourism and Climate Change Action Strategy was developed. The strategy recognizes the vital importance that a healthy GBR ecosystem plays for the Australian economy and that the tourism industry must quickly come to grips with the problem. Recommended actions include reducing direct impacts and greenhouse gas emissions from tourism companies operating on or near the reef; increased training and awareness for guides and operators; helping to raise public understanding of the threat, and; supporting scientific research and monitoring activities. The plan also calls for the industry itself to plan adaptive responses for declining reef conditions and to contribute to risk management strategies for climate disasters.
Despite these measures, international concern has continued to grow, however, that without a comprehensive response more in keeping with the scale of the threat, the GBR’s extraordinary biodiversity and natural beauty may lose its World Heritage values. The World Conservation Outlook 2014 published by IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) assessed the status of the World Heritage values of the GBR as of “high concern” and experiencing a deteriorating trend. The most recent strategy from the Australian government, the Reef 2050 Long-term Sustainability plan addressed this issue head on and has been designed to “ensure the Great Barrier Reef continues to improve on its Outstanding Universal Value every decade between now and 2050 to be a natural wonder for each successive generation to come”.
Note: This blog is an updated version of the draft case study that UNESCO removed from the report World Heritage and Tourism in a Changing Climate at the request of the Australian government. UCS believes that we need to have these important conversations publicly, which is why we published the case study on our blog on the same time the report was released internationally.]]>
Together with UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization), UNEP (United Nations Environment Programme), and IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature), UCS has published a major new report examining the impacts of climate change on 31 World Heritage sites in 29 countries, including the US. The report, World Heritage and Tourism in a Changing Climate, shows how seriously many of the world’s most important natural and cultural heritage sites are already being affected by climate change, and the risks they face in the future.
World Heritage sites are listed for their universal value to humankind, with the intention that they be preserved for future generations. Many are iconic places, such as the Statue of Liberty and Stonehenge, and some of them protect extraordinary wilderness or wildlife, as in Yellowstone or Indonesia’s Komodo Island.
World Heritage sites are often magnets for tourism and economic drivers as well. Visitor spending of nearly $800 million annually at the three US World Heritage sites covered in our new report (Yellowstone, Statue of Liberty, and Mesa Verde) are together responsible for over 11,000 jobs according to Headwaters Economics. In developing nations especially, the acceptance of a site onto the World Heritage List can provide a vital economic boost for local communities, a region or even a whole country.
Tourism is a bit of a double-edged sword, however, and can bring environmental pressures including pollution, over-development, and cultural disruption if poorly managed. These pressures can add to existing threats to World Heritage sites. The risks are myriad—if you can think of a problem, there is almost certainly a World Heritage site suffering from it somewhere in the world—whether it be urbanization, mining, logging, agricultural expansion, pollution, war, or terrorism.
But now unfortunately, the fastest growing risk to World Heritage, and one of the most under-reported by the countries that are parties to the World Heritage convention, is from climate change. Climate change not only brings its own direct impacts such as high temperatures, coastal flooding, and more intense extreme weather events, but it acts as a “risk multiplier,” compounding many of the existing local stresses at each site.
There is an alarming range of climate impacts already in evidence at World Heritage sites. Some of the most spectacular coral reefs on the planet—Australia’s Great Barrier Reef and the western Pacific islands of New Caledonia and Palau—are currently suffering a massive bleaching event with a direct connection to rising water temperatures caused by climate change.
Earlier this year, irreplaceably rare forests burned in the Tasmanian Wilderness National Park in Australia as climate-driven drought conditions and high temperatures combined to produce devastating wildfires.
Mountain gorillas in Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable National Park—already under threat from human encroachment and habitat loss—are put at longer-term risk from climate-driven changes in their forest habitat and from the potential increase of transmission of diseases from humans in a warmer world.
Scientists in Yellowstone are predicting a transformation of the ecosystem in the worlds’ first national park as higher temperatures; shorter, warmer winters; and reduced snowpack alter the wildfire regime, impact forests and wildlife, and change stream flow and water temperatures.
It’s not just natural wonders in World Heritage sites that are at risk.
Globally important cultural sites such as the forts and churches of the colonial port city of Cartagena in Columbia and Venice’s extraordinary architecture, including the extraordinary 13th century mosaics in the Basilica of St. Mark’s are at immediate risk.
The best preserved Neolithic settlement in Europe, 5,000-year-old Skara Brae on the Scottish island of Orkney is only being prevented from being lost to coastal erosion and the sea by a sea wall that needs constant repairs and cannot protect the site forever as storms worsen and sea levels rise.
Many cultural treasures in Asia are vulnerable too. The Vietnamese town of Hoi An—a storied Far Eastern trading port active from the 15th to 19th centuries and on the World Heritage List for its collection of more than 11,00 wood-framed building—is at high risk from flooding and UN experts project that it will suffer severe floods annually by 2020 as a result of sea level rise.
Meanwhile the spectacular rice terraces of the Philippine Cordilleras—cultural landscapes created and maintained over a period of at least 2,000 years by the Ifugao people—are suffering from landslides as a result of worsening extreme weather events.
World Heritage sites are too important to let go, and there is much that can be done to prevent some of the damage from climate change.
We need a better system of monitoring and assessment for climate impacts at these special places, as well as an early warning system to alert protected area managers to emerging problems. A global assessment of climate risk to all World Heritage sites is also needed, so that we can identify the sites that are most vulnerable. Resources for preparedness and resilience can then be directed to the most at-risk sites.
But protected area management is woefully under-resourced in most countries anyway, so finding additional funding is also a critical issue. Perhaps this is one way the tourism industry can help, by bringing new funds for climate resilience measures in the places tourists visit, so that the attractions that drew them there in the first place—whether they be historic cities, extraordinary landscapes, or abundant wildlife—are not degraded to the point where they no longer hold the values that they are known for.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned as I’ve dug into this issue during the last 12 months, it’s that the most important thing we can do to save World Heritage for our children and grandchildren is implement the Paris Agreement and try to meet the goal of keeping global temperature rise to no more than 1.5˚C. The planet’s thermometer is already at 1˚C, so there is no time to lose.
It wasn’t the president’s first speech about climate change but was certainly his most somber and detailed, and it injected a much-needed note of urgency into the diplomatic preparations for the Paris climate negotiations in November.
For the first time he acknowledged the threat of accelerated global warming if massive carbon releases result from the thawing of the permafrost which has already begun. He also described a growing catalogue of impact including worsening wildfires, melting ice, rising seas, eroding coasts, ocean acidification, and species migrations—all of which can be clearly seen already in Alaska.
The president said:
“…if we do nothing, temperatures in Alaska are projected to rise between six and 12 degrees by the end of the century, triggering more melting, more fires, more thawing of the permafrost, a negative feedback loop, a cycle—warming leading to more warming—that we do not want to be a part of. And the fact is that climate is changing faster than our efforts to address it. That, ladies and gentlemen, must change. We’re not acting fast enough.”
He went on to say that none of the 18 nations represented at the GLACIER conference were doing enough to address climate change, and blasted “the critics and the cynics and the deniers” that plead ignorance. And the president said that politicians should not gamble on the future of the planet, saying that “any so-called leader who does not take this issue seriously or treats it like a joke—is not fit to lead.”
The speech was a forceful and sober assessment of the situation we have got ourselves into and a recognition that we are running out of time to effectively address it. Those in the room had no doubt that the president meant every word of what he said. And he can’t fail to be gravely moved when he goes on the road to see the melting glaciers and meet fishing communities and at-risk Native Alaskans this week.
But the question remains—can the president build the political will in the U.S. to bring together the solutions needed at the scale required to meet this daunting challenge? He certainly left us with the impression that he’s going to try.]]>
If you’ve been following the media build-up to President Obama’s trip to Alaska, you’ve also been getting the message that “what happens in the Arctic doesn’t stay in the Arctic.”
The day before the president arrived in Anchorage, I attended a climate science briefing organized by the Alaska Ocean Observing System (AOOS) and WWF that really brought the scientific basis for that message home to me.
The briefing was designed as a “speed-dating event” to introduce some of Alaska’s top climate impacts scientists to journalists who are in Anchorage to cover the President’s visit. Ten scientists were given just five minutes each to get across the essence of what often involved years or even decades of research and why it matters to Americans. Here are some the things we learned.
Boreal forest represents about one third of the world’s forest and contains about one third of all terrestrial carbon. One third of that boreal forest is in North America. Half of Alaska—an area four times the size of Washington State—is covered by boreal forest.
Just as in the rest of the western United States, warming temperatures are driving an increase in large wildfires in Alaska. In the whole of the forty-year period from 1950-1989 wildfires burned 27 million acres in Alaska. In contrast, in just the last 5 years a staggering 37 million acres have burned. 2015 was the worst fire season ever and smoke from Alaska contributed to haze as far away as Ohio and Long Island. Scott Rupp from the University of Alaska says that every bad fires season like this can wipe out decades of accumulated carbon in the forests and send it back into the atmosphere to contribute to global warming.
According to a new report from the National Research Council of the National Academies, large wildfires are now spreading into some permafrost regions, driven by drier conditions. This is something that is unprecedented in the last 10,000 years, and the most severe fires can burn off the surface vegetation, speeding the thawing of the permafrost below.
The Arctic permafrost contains almost 1500 billion tons of carbon, almost twice what is already in the atmosphere.
In Alaska, according to Vladimir Romanovsky of the University of Alaska, permafrost has warmed substantially since the mid-1980s, even down to 50 meters deep. At some sites on the North Slope, warming has been as much as 6°C at the surface. Thawing permafrost has severe local impacts including damage to infrastructure such as homes, roads and pipelines, and accelerated erosion along the coast.
But the real global danger from melting permafrost is the release of vast quantities of carbon to the atmosphere. Scientists Max Holmes, Susan Natali, and colleagues from Woods Hole Research Center note that “carbon emissions from thawing permafrost accelerate global warming, so the potential exists for a catastrophic, self-reinforcing cycle of warming and thawing permafrost.” 130-160 billion tons of carbon could be released before 2100—roughly equivalent to 100 times current annual U.S. emissions of carbon from fossil fuels and cement production.
Salmon provide a cultural touchstone for all Alaskans and they form the basis for an enormously economically important fishery. 95% of US wild salmon comes from Alaska. However, salmon are highly sensitive to river temperatures, and warmer temperatures are threatening the state’s fisheries. Stream temperatures of 20°C are lethal for salmon and these levels have been exceeded in recent years on the Kenai Peninsula. Aside from the direct impacts of temperature, parasites such as Ichthyophonus can thrive in warmer temperatures, as was seen in recent years when Yukon River temperatures rose significantly above normal and an epidemic broke out in the King salmon population.
Alaska accounts for more than 50% of the total U.S. fish catch, with the bulk of this being pollock, cod, and flatfish. Alaskan fish populations clearly respond to temperature fluctuations, including climate change and cyclical variations such as El Nino. Because of warming ocean temperatures, cold-water species are being pushed northwards and more southerly species such as albacore tuna and ocean sunfish are being seen more frequently in Alaskan waters.
Recent research led by Gordon Kruse at the University of Alaska has demonstrated variations in predation of different age classes of pollock in response to warmer temperatures, the net effect being higher juvenile mortality and therefore slower population growth. There are numerous other impacts on fisheries too. Snow crab catch is correlated with sea ice extent and red king crab juvenile mortality is also affected by the condition of sea ice. In the absence of sea ice, the phytoplankton blooms occur too late for the juvenile crabs that depend on them for food in the first few days of their development.
Ocean acidification is climate change’s evil twin. It doesn’t occur as a result of climate change, but is a direct result of increasing levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
When CO2 dissolves in seawater it lowers the pH of the water and this acidification has the capacity to dissolve or degrade the calcium carbonate shells of species such as crustaceans, shellfish, corals, and calcifying phytoplankton.
Many Alaskan waters are particularly vulnerable to ocean acidification because of other factors that contribute, including freshwater input from glaciers and rivers, the capacity of cold waters to absorb more carbon dioxide, and upwelling from carbon dioxide rich deep waters. New research by scientists from NOAA, the University of Alaska, and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Research Institute predicts that ocean acidification will overwhelm the ability of marine calcifiers to build and maintain their shells within a decade in some Alaska waters. The threshold could be reached by 2025 in the Beaufort Sea, 2027 in the Chukchi Sea and 2044 for the Bering Sea, threatening the red king crab and snow crab fisheries among others.
A warming and drying trend in Alaska is causing lakes to lose water and shrink. In fact Alaska is now losing 0.8% of its wetland area annually.
A recent study of 123 lakes in the state has shown that lake size is the best predictor of species richness. As lakes shrink, so too will the diversity of species they support. Birds that spend the summer in Alaska and breed there, and then spread out throughout the United States and beyond via a series of major migration flyways in the spring and autumn. Negative impacts of climate change on breeding success in Alaska will have ramifications for migratory birds including ducks, shorebirds, loons, and terns across the United States and probably in your local parks and wetlands.]]>
Of Alaska’s 213 native villages, 184 are already experiencing severe problems with flooding and erosion. Thirty-one had already been identified by the U.S. Government as under “imminent threat” six years ago.
President Obama will see first-hand the impacts of climate change next week, when he is expected to visit northwest Alaska and meet with residents of one of the most imperiled communities after speaking at an international climate conference in Anchorage.
Alaska is the largest state, with spectacular wilderness, abundant natural resources, and a population of just over 700,000 people—some 14 percent of which are Native Alaskans. The state has more than 33,000 miles of coastline and over 12,000 rivers. Most Native Alaskan villages are located on remote stretches of coast or inland waterways and for many of them, increased flooding and erosion has become a major and growing problem in recent years.
The climate has warmed twice as fast in Alaska as in the rest of the U.S. during the last half century. The effects can be seen everywhere on the landscape.
Permafrost is melting, causing ground slumping and accelerating erosion on riverbanks and coasts. Extreme rainfall is increasing, bringing increased risks of flooding. Stream temperatures are on the rise, causing problems for wild salmon. Devastating beetle damage to forests is readily apparent. Large wildfires are becoming more prevalent. Perhaps of greatest concern to Alaska Native communities, though, are the changes in sea ice.
Sea ice extent and volume has been declining during the last 35 years and the most recent eight years have been the eight years with least sea ice. March 2015 marked the lowest ever Arctic sea ice extent. Melting ice is part of a self-reinforcing cycle of change. As more ice melts, exposing the dark water below, instead of being reflected back by the bright white ice cover, solar radiation heats the ocean, which in turn accelerates the loss of ice.
Ice is vital for Alaska Native communities whose cultures still center on subsistence hunting, fishing, and harvesting wild foods. Seasonal ice is exploited by hunters in pursuit of fish, wildfowl, seals, walrus and in some communities, whales.
When seasonal ice is late in forming, or fails to form at all, traditional hunts are delayed or disrupted. Walrus hunts in Gambrell, Savoonga, and Diomede have all been badly hit by shifting ice conditions in recent years. The hunts provide vital food resources and income from carved tusk ivory. Thinning ice is increasingly dangerous to travel over and hunters’ lives are at risk too.
Some of the most threatened Alaskan villages, however, have an even bigger problem with the loss of ice. Where seasonal sea ice forms in the fall along the coast of western Alaska, it protects coastal villages from storms and coastline erosion. Ice is now forming later, or not at all, and the communities are left exposed, vulnerable, and threatened by storms.
At least 12 villages are so at risk that their residents know they will have to move wholesale to new sites. The people of these villages may become the first U.S. climate refugees. Their fate, however, offers a glimpse of what may happen to more and more high-risk coastal communities, not just in Alaska, but in the lower 48 as well. For although the problem of seasonal ice and permafrost melt is unique in the U.S. to Alaska, there are many other communities that are vulnerable to encroaching tides, coastal erosion, and even the possibility of permanent inundation and eventual relocation.
In Alaska, of the 12 communities already known to need to move, eight are likely to be able to be able to do so gradually, by migrating over a number of years to nearby higher ground. But four villages—Kivalina, Koyuyuk, Shishmaref, and Newtok—will need to move wholesale to new sites, perhaps some considerable distance away.
Like many native communities in the U.S., Alaskan Native villages’ problems have been exacerbated by historical government policies. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, with a Federal government requirement that all Native Alaskan children attend schools, communities that had for many, many generations migrated between seasonal hunting and fishing camps were forced to consolidate and settle in permanent settlements. The location of the villages was largely determined by where barges could navigate to bring in building materials for the new schools. So where previous generations were able to respond and adapt to environmental changes, the Native Alaskans newly rooted in one place became less able to adapt to changes.
Now, with rapid warming in the Arctic, the combination of loss of protective seasonal ice, thawing permafrost, and greater wave heights near the shore, coastal erosion, flooding, and storm damage is rampant.
For example, Newtok, a Yup’ik Eskimo village on the Ninglick River in western Alaska lost three quarters of a mile of tundra in front of the village between 1954 and 2003. The erosion is projected to reach the school building by 2017. Storms and permafrost thaw in recent years have worsened erosion and flooding. The village water supply has repeatedly been flooded and raw sewage and waste have been spread through the community. Lack of sanitary conditions and contamination of drinking water has created a growing public health crisis in the village, with a high proportion of village infants having to be hospitalized more than 50 miles away in recent years. Newtok residents have voted to relocate and have even found an alternative site, but lack of a coordinating Federal agency to work with, the involvement of 25 different state and federal agencies, and the absence of funds have meant that the process has almost ground to a halt.
Further north, Kivalina, an Inupiaq Eskimo village on a narrow barrier island in the Chukchi sea less than 100 miles north of the Arctic Circle, is losing an average of 35 feet of shoreline annually to winter storms. Efforts to create effective coastal defenses and sea walls have failed and the residents have voted to leave the island, but an alternative site has not yet been found. The US Government Accountability Office has estimated the cost of moving this village of approximately 400 people to be between $90 and $400 million. Contrast this amount with the $50 million that President Obama has pledged to support all Native American communities in the U.S. with climate adaptation and you begin to see the scale of the problem that we as a nation face.
To effectively support climate adaptation nationally the U.S. will need to find major new sources of revenue, perhaps through some form of carbon pricing that would also help reduce the rate of carbon emissions that are causing the problem. Alaskan Native villages are on the front lines of the climate crisis, but the fate of these communities, with their thousands of years of subsistence traditions behind them and their rich cultural heritage at risk, should be a warning for all of us.]]>
Here in Sydney, however, participants have been focused on protected areas in the context of biodiversity conservation. The organization behind this once-a-decade meeting, IUCN (the International Union for the Conservation of Nature), released a new assessment of the current state of natural World Heritage sites and found that the biggest threat globally is from climate change.
Deforestation, invasive species, poaching, and industrial development are all still taking a serious toll, but climate impacts have risen to the top of the international conservation agenda because they are here now and can no longer be ignored. Iconic protected areas including Yellowstone, the Everglades, and the Great Barrier Reef are already suffering the consequences of climate change, as are many more, less famous, but equally biologically and culturally valuable places. For example, the high altitude paramo habitats of Chingaza National Park In Colombia, now under threat from warming temperatures, provide drinking water for 8 million people in Bogota.
What has been remarkable at this meeting, and from my point of view extremely positive, is the extent to which protected areas are now being talked about not just as “victims” of climate change, but also as a key part of the solution through their integration into climate resilience strategies.
A new IUCN study, Safe Havens: Protected Areas for Disaster Risk Reduction and Climate Change Adaptation, presented here at the Congress, details 18 case studies showing how protected areas can be hugely influential in reducing vulnerability and damage. Studies undertaken after the 2004 tsunami in Sri Lanka showed that in Hikkadawa, where reefs are in a marine protected area, damage only reached 50m inland, whereas at Peraliya, where extensive coral mining is degrading the reef, waves reached 10m high and damage extended 1.5km inland.
A case study on Barbados carried out for the IUCN report by re-insurance company SwissRe suggests that every dollar invested in the mangrove forests of the Folkestone Marine Park can reduce $20 in hurricane losses. SwissRe found that mangrove and reef revival programs, along with coastal and inland zoning, were by far the most cost-effective risk reduction measures. Healthy coral reefs, for example, can reduce storm surge impacts by 50 percent. According to SwissRe, expected annual loss in Barbados is approximately 4 percent of GDP, but that taken together, the most cost-effective investments could avert 35 percent of future losses.
The U.S. case study in the IUCN report examined the post-Katrina benefits of restoring the coastal barrier islands of the Gulf Islands National Seashore and the Jean Lafitte National Historic Park and Preserve. The marshes and swamps of the Jean Lafitte NHPP are crisscrossed by oil exploration access canals which date from before the site’s designation to the National Park system in 1978. Work is now underway to backfill many of these canals in order to reduce saltwater intrusion and vegetation die-off, as well as to control invasive plant species. The preserve directly borders Mississippi west bank urban areas of metropolitan New Orleans. During Hurricane Katrina in 2005, no levees with adjacent swamps failed – only those with no buffering from the storm surge were damaged or breached. The barrier islands too perform a vital protective role. Scientists estimate that their loss could raise storm surge wave height by up to as much as 1.25m. According to The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the barrier islands contribute $20 million in storm risk reduction annually.
Another World Parks Congress workshop I attended took the concept of ecosystem-based climate disaster reduction a step further. In this case by applying the principles of natural ecosystem vitality and restoration across the landscape, not just in protected areas. The Climate Buffers Coalition in the Netherlands has been working since 2006 to design and implement a set of large-scale demonstration projects across the country. The Netherlands already has the most highly
engineered and best protected coastline in the world, but it still suffers from serious flooding, especially as extreme rainfall events increase.
The Climate Buffers project aims to restore the natural capacity of coastal dunes, estuaries, and wetlands to protect against flooding. The project includes work to relocate river dikes to increase floodplain area, digging peak flow bypasses, creating rainwater storage capacity in wetlands, restoring peatlands so they can act as sponges, and re-instituting processes such as meandering and sedimentation by removing walls from channelized rivers.
Australian conservation scientist Peter Bridgewater (former Secretary General of the UN’s Ramsar Convention) was in the audience and called this approach “developing green and blue infrastructure.” He noted that protected areas are already there, and that’s good, but this is about “things that we put in, we build, we restore.”
What’s clear from all I’ve been hearing here in Sydney is that the political dynamic regarding conservation and climate impacts is changing from one of protection and preservation from change, to one of resilience and integration with community needs and adaptation planning outside the confines of protected area borders. It’s an exciting and important conceptual shift, and one that I think is just now entering the mainstream.
The next step, as IUCN’s Radhika Murti, one of the co-authors of the Safe Havens report said here this week, is to “get climate people talking with disaster people…Communities don’t differentiate between disasters and climate impacts. But pre-disaster conditions determine disaster impacts.”
I hope that the work UCS is doing on climate preparedness is going to play an important part in the transformation of the way we approach climate resilience and disaster risk reduction in the U.S.]]>
World Heritage Sites at risk
I’m in Sydney representing UCS as a follow-up to the launch of the ground-breaking “Landmarks At Risk” report that we published in May highlighting the risk that so many U.S. historic places and archaeological sites face from climate change. We’re collaborating with the U.S. National Park Service, and holding a workshop this week to draw attention to climate impacts on cultural heritage resources at the international level. Although there are 50 workshops on climate here, there are only two dealing with cultural heritage, and ours is one of them.
The overwhelming emphasis at the meeting is on biodiversity and natural ecosystems, but almost all the national protected area systems represented here are also responsible for historic and cultural site preservation. Even if you only consider UNESCO’s World Heritage sites, a large number of those listed for their cultural values are already being impacted by, or are vulnerable to, climate impacts such as sea level rise, drought, wildfires, extreme rainfall events, or melting ice.
Cultural World Heritage sites at risk include Venice and its lagoon in Italy, the Uluru-Kata Tjuta (Ayer’s Rock) cultural landscape in Australia, the 19th Century whaling settlements of Canada’s Herschel island, the great mosques of Timbuktu, and ancient pueblo remains in Mesa Verde National Park in the U.S.
Climate change and cultural heritage workshop
We are very lucky to have an extraordinary group of experts presenting at the UCS workshop here in Sydney:
I’m excited to bring these cutting-edge researchers together in Sydney, and in doing so, catalyze a much-needed international discussion about preserving cultural heritage in a changing climate change. I’ll be sending more dispatches from the World Parks Congress, so watch this space.]]>
Sea level rise and coastal flooding exacerbated by extreme rainfall events and storms, is perhaps the most obvious threat to our heritage. You can stand on the harbor wall of Annapolis’s bustling City Dock and imagine what it must have been like for the members of the Continental Congress who met there after the American Revolution in the winter of 1783-4; or you can stand there and imagine the historic buildings swamped with water as they were during Hurricane Isabel in 2003.
The City of Annapolis (with support from the National Trust for Historic Preservation) has identified 140 historic buildings at risk from flooding, and the story of growing risk and vulnerability is repeated in historic districts all along America’s coasts. As our planet warms and the climate continues to change, it’s becoming clear that the consequences could be dire for many thousands of historic buildings, archaeological sites and cultural landscapes.
The global average of sea level rise was about 8 inches between 1880 and 2009, a period during which the planet warmed by 1.8 degrees F. As water warms, it expands, and this combined with the melting of land ice including glaciers and polar ice sheets causes sea levels to rise.
The amount the water rises is quite variable from place to place depending on local factors such as land subsidence and groundwater extraction. For example, the 600-mile stretch of the east coast from Cape Hatteras in North Carolina up to Maine has experienced some of the fastest rates of sea level rise anywhere in the world since the 1970s.
Rising sea levels present a direct problem to vulnerable historic structures in coastal communities. Higher seas mean more frequent and severe tidal flooding, increased rates of coastal erosion, and greater storm damage. A new Union of Concerned Scientists analysis of 52 NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmosphere Administration) tide gauges along the East and Gulf coasts shows that many low-lying communities will experience a doubling or tripling of high-tide flooding events within the next 15 years.
You don’t need to be a climate change expert to understand the risk. You just need to stroll through the historic waterfront neighborhoods of historic towns such as St. Augustine, Florida; Norfolk, Virginia; and Charleston, South Carolina. Downtown Charleston, a world-renowned leader in architectural preservation already experiences around 10 high-tide flooding events annually compared to just two in the 1970s, and conditions are only going to get worse.
Some cities, including parts of Washington D.C., and Annapolis, Maryland, can expect to see 150 to 200 tidal flooding events annually by 2030. Storms can exacerbate the flooding threat. The U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, for example, a national historic landmark famous for its Beaux Arts campus buildings, sustained $120 million in flood damage from Hurricane Isabel in 2003.
Coastal erosion and flooding is already causing severe damage to precious historic sites and cultural resources around the U.S. coast. Early Hawaiian sacred sites and prehistoric stone fish-traps on the west coast of the Big Island are under threat, as are ancient shell mounds in the wetlands of southern Florida, colonial districts in Baltimore and Boston, the iconic Gay Head Lighthouse on Martha’s Vineyard, and perhaps most famously, Colonial Jamestown in Virginia.
Last June, arriving early for a climate change roundtable with Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell at Jamestown, I walked down to the beach of the James River. Where I stood on this rapidly eroding shoreline was literally just spitting distance from the 400-year-old ruins of the old glassblowing works. It was only too easy to imagine the growing threat of flooding and inundation facing this–the first site of English manufacturing in America.
Later that day, Secretary Jewell toured Jamestown and said, “It’s very clear we have global warming and sea level rise and this is a hot spot for it…And what’s at risk is the history of our country… We don’t have very many places in the United States that talk about the super-early history of settlers connecting with the native people of the land, so this is a really an important place.”
While the threat to coastal historic buildings from sea level rise is clear to most people, less thought is given to impacts driven by a changing climate at inland sites. Wildfires are increasingly threatening western sites ranging from the ancient pueblo remains of Bandelier National Monument to the 19th-century wooden buildings of gold rush towns such as Groveland, California, and Virginia City, Montana. Bandelier National Monument was among 17 cases studies the Union of Concerned Scientists wrote about in its May 2014 report, National Landmarks at Risk.
Hotter and drier conditions caused by climate change have been the primary driving factor behind the increasing area burned by large wildfires in the western United States. The length of the wildfire season has increased by more than two months since 1970, and the devastating flash floods that often follow massive wildfires when land has been denuded of trees and vegetation are now a growing risk for archaeological resources in the Southwest.
According to the 2014 National Climate Assessment (NCA), there has been a strong trend toward increasing frequency of extreme rainfall events nationwide in recent years.
Heavy downpours have been identified by the National Park Service as a risk factor for adobe structures such as the Mission at Tumacacori in Arizona, while flash floods associated with Hurricane Irene in 2011 brought damage and destruction to many historic covered bridges in upstate New York and Vermont. The Northeast has experienced a greater increase in extreme precipitation since 1958 than any other region of the country, with more than a 70 percent increase in rainfall during the heaviest events.
Less dramatic, but often equally insidious climate impacts have included changes in the freeze-thaw cycle. Managers at Aspet, the New Hampshire home of sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, have sounded the alarm over the damage being done to the house’s brickwork as a result of warmer winters. In winters past, snow could be relied on to cover the ground throughout the winter, whereas now it often melts away before falling again during the season, and multiple freeze-thaw cycles are causing bricks to splinter and shear.
Just from the few examples I’ve mentioned here, it’s clear to see that the impacts of climate change are pervasive. It’s alarming to think, however, that for the country as a whole, we have as yet very little grasp of just how bad the situation is, which sites are most vulnerable or at greatest immediate risk, or what the best solutions are. Obviously we must work to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change, but equally we must begin to prepare much more urgently, not just for the climate impacts that are already becoming manifest, but also for those that are already locked into the system and will be worsening in the coming decades.
Climate resilience will have to become a national priority; and we must allocate the necessary resources to ensuring effective preservation in a changing climate. We need an action agenda for preservation in a changing climate. One that will require a better understanding of which resources are most vulnerable to climate impacts and how climate change is increasing the risks. We’ll also need to evaluate the effectiveness of current preservation strategies and technologies in light of these rapidly changing environmental factors. And significantly, we must find ways to prioritize among at-risk sites given limited available resources. There will be hard choices to make, but if we delay in addressing these issues we will surely regret it.
Right now I can visit the Harriett Tubman Underground Railroad National Monument on the Eastern Shore of the Chesapeake Bay and see a landscape remarkably little changed from when Tubman led scores of her family and neighbors to safety across the marshes. I can see where she lived and worked, and I can imagine the perils she faced when she freed herself and others. Unfortunately, neither does it take much imagination to see that a little more sea level rise could submerge this and many other landscapes of national memory almost entirely.]]>
The coast of Martha’s Vineyard, with its exposed bluffs, barrier beaches and ponds has always been in a dynamic relationship with the sea, but the changes that human-driven climate change are bringing have no parallel in the recent past. Global average sea level has risen about 8 inches between 1880 and 2009, while the rate of increase has markedly increased, especially since 1993, and is still accelerating. Due to a variety of local factors, the stretch of the East coast of the United States from Cape Hatteras in North Carolina up to Maine has some of the fastest rates of sea level rise in the world.
In addition to sea level rise, the Northeast has experienced a greater increase in extreme precipitation since 1958 than any other region of the country, with more than a 70% increase in rainfall during the heaviest events. The National Climate Assessment also recently concluded that there is a growing risk of stronger storms in the Northeast. All of these changes are contributing to the rate at which the Gay Head Cliffs are eroding. The combination of sea level rise and storms can be particularly lethal, bringing higher waves and more wave energy crashing against the shore.
Martha’s Vineyard, like Nantucket, is an island shaped by the Laurentide ice sheet, and formed from glacial debris during the last ice age. Much of the island is glacial moraine, but the Gay Head Cliffs, with their multi-colored hues of white, yellow, orange, red and green are an extraordinary feature, comprised of much older pre-glacial cretaceous and tertiary strata, pushed up and displaced from the ancient sea bed. Clay, kaolin, and greensand strata can all be seen in the cliffs as well as some lignite. The greensand layers in particular have been famously rich sources of fossils. In 1842, Charles Darwin’s mentor and ally the great geologist Charles Lyell visited Gay Head to examine the remarkable cliffs. He found fossil remains of shark, seal, whale and walrus there. Fossil fragments of land animals including horse, camel and mastodon have also been discovered in the Gay Head deposits.
Now the erosion of the cliffs has put one of America’s most historic lighthouses in imminent danger. Construction of the original wooden lighthouse was authorized by President John Adams in 1799. Paul Revere supplied copper for its roof and in 1805 Thomas Jefferson personally approved a pay increase for its hard-working first keeper, Ebenezer Skiff. The old lighthouse was replaced with a taller brick tower in 1855 and the next year a state-of-the-art first order Fresnel lense was installed. Only the second fitted in a US lighthouse, the French-manufactured lense weighed one and half tons and was made up of more than 1000 hand-ground prisms. Before coming to America, the Gay Head lense won a gold medal at the Paris Exposition of 1855 as a technological marvel of the age. Martha’s Vineyard was a major whaling center and according to local author William Waterway, the burners for this powerful light were fueled by sperm whale oil until 1867 when it was converted to lard oil and then later still, to a kerosene burner. Replaced in 1952 with an automated electric beam, the original Fresnel lense is now displayed in the Martha’s Vineyard Museum in Edgartown.
The first Gay Head Light was the first lighthouse built on the island and it was needed because of the busy ship traffic plying Vineyard Sound in service to the thriving whaling industry. In the days before electronic navigation devices, the waters of Vineyard Sound could be particularly treacherous because of a long rocky shoal that runs out about a quarter mile in a northwesterly direction from Gay Head Cliffs. Gay Head (now Aquinnah) was, and is, a native Wampanoag community, rich in cultural heritage. According to local tradition, a giant called Moshup wanted to build a bridge from the vineyard to Cuttyhunk island and he started to lay huge boulders in the water but a crab bit him on the toe and he retreated, leaving “Moshup’s Bridge” uncompleted and creating a major maritime hazard in the process. The legend was later Anglicized by Christian missionaries and the shoals are now better known as Devil’s Bridge. Among many victims, these dangerous reefs infamously claimed the SS City of Columbus, a passenger steamer than ran aground in January 1884 en route to Savannah, Georgia from Boston, with the loss of over 100 lives.
The Gay Head Light was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1987 and, the Gay Head Cliffs were designated a National Natural Landmark by the National Park Service in 1975. Now the Coast Guard Service is in the process of transferring ownership of the light to the town of Aquinnah. The town has identified a new site for the structure, about 150 feet further inland, and International Chimney Corp., the New York engineering firm that moved the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse in 1999 has been selected to carry-out the move. The Save the Gay Head Light Committee is working hard to raise the $3 million dollar cost of the move. Just a few weeks ago, Roseanne Cash, who counts a 19th Century Nantucket whaling captain amongst her ancestors, played a benefit concert this summer. Prominent island artists including Jeanne Staples and thirteenth generation vineyard resident Allen Whiting donated proceeds from paintings through a local gallery show, “Keep the Lighthouse in Sight”
For me, the Aquinnah coast with its pristine sands, dunes cloaked in grasses, wild roses and beach plums, is one of the most spectacularly gorgeous places on the planet. But without its lighthouse it would be a different place – beautiful still, but much the poorer for the loss of a striking visual symbol of Martha’s Vineyard and a tangible link with more than two centuries of maritime and island history. I’m pretty confident that this precious landmark will be saved by the local community’s efforts, but it does make me wonder just how many other important American historic buildings will not survive our changing climate unless we act rapidly to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.]]>
Coming on the heels of the Union of Concerned Scientists’ own recent report on climate impacts at some of the United States most iconic historic sites, a new study has shown that most U.S. National Parks are now experiencing warmer temperatures than at any time since the National Park Service was founded in 1916.
National Park Service Scientists William Monahan and Nicholas Fisichelli analyzed the climate of the last 10-30 years for 289 national park units and compared it to the “historical range of variability” for the period 1901-2012. They found that “parks are overwhelmingly at the extreme warm end of historical temperature distributions.” 91% of the parks are warmer than they were, and this general pattern can be seen from the Pacific Islands to Alaska, to the U.S. East Coast.
Published in the journal, PLOS ONE, the new research will likely have far-reaching consequences for how protected areas managers think about resource conservation and management in the future. Management strategies that have worked historically may no longer be effective in a rapidly changing climate.
For example, the authors make the case that because of sea level rise, managers at Point Reyes National Seashore in California may now need to include strategies to allow the shoreline and wetlands to migrate inland, rather than try to maintain historic conditions and protect and against sea level rise. Similar management choices will need to be made in many other parks. However, while the vast majority of the parks are getting warmer, there has been much more variability in precipitation trends, as would be expected based on observed trends and climate modeling projections. But the study authors identified some clear regional patterns. For example, parks in Hawaii and the desert southwest have become warmer and drier, whilst parks in the Northeast are now warmer and wetter.
For resource management in parks it is important not only to understand long-term annual trends but also variability in inter-annual climate conditions. For example, while both Appomattox Court House National Historic Park in Virginia and Niobrara National Scenic River in Nebraska are in the extreme high temperature range compared to historical climate, the Appomattox site exhibits high variability in temperature between years, while Niobrara is in the low range for annual variability.
Seasonal variation can be important too. For example, the authors found that Assateague Island National Seashore (which is already under threat from sea level rise) in addition to experiencing extreme warm conditions in recent decades compared to its historic climate, has also suffered extreme wet conditions in the wettest quarter of the year and extreme dry conditions in the normally driest quarter of the year. Apostle Islands National Lakeshore in Wisconsin has already reached the hottest summer temperatures it has experienced in the last 100 years, and so any further warming will push it into new conditions which managers have never had to deal with since the creation of the park.
In response to the new study, National Park Service Director, Jon Jarvis, was quoted as saying “This report shows that climate change continues to be the most far-reaching and consequential challenge ever faced by our national parks.” To rise to this daunting challenge we must continue to fund cutting edge research to understand the impacts of climate change in our parks and protected areas, as well as urgently stepping up national efforts to reduce carbon pollution and prepare for the consequences of climate change.]]>