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Take one look around, and you’ll probably notice that the world is changing. We just had four of our hottest years in recorded history, and as a result of the warming planet, even our oceans could change dramatically.
According to a new study released earlier this month in the journal Natural Communications, by the end of this century, bluer regions of our oceans will become noticeably more blue, while the green regions will become more intensely green: a “warning sign” from phytoplankton.
And just as climate change is impacting the color of our oceans, it’s having a more profound impact on sea levels. A 2016 study published in Nature says sea levels will likely rise five or six feet by 2100. Even if we were to suddenly cut our carbon emissions to zero, the planet would still heat up two degrees Fahrenheit by 2100.
For travelers and activists interested in learning more about and visiting some of the planet’s most incredible — and endangered — destinations, the sense of urgency is very real. Of course, experiencing these places ethically and with purpose is extremely important. Before you book a trip to see a place threatened by climate change, consider airline carbon offsetting programs and eco-friendly, sustainable hotels and resorts.
Once you arrive, be sure to minimize your impact on these fragile places by using public transportation, walking or biking to explore the destination. Small changes like bringing a reusable water bottle, packing your own snacks in sustainable packaging and eating locally sourced food can also shrink your footprint. You may also consider how you’ll make a meaningful contribution to the destination by donating to a local charity, or signing up to volunteer during your visit. With awareness and education, we can take steps to create a more sustainable future.
With luxurious overwater villas and plenty of points hotels, the Maldives is a favorite destination of TPG staffers (and readers!). But, at just six feet above sea level at its highest points, the chain of 1,200 coral islands is particularly vulnerable to rising oceans due to global warming. If sea levels continue to rise at the current rate, scientists say that, in mere decades, the Maldives will be completely uninhabitable for the nearly half a million people who live there. Flood waters are expected to wash out key infrastructure and freshwater used for drinking, according to a 2018 study published in the Journal of Science Advances.
If current greenhouse gas emissions rates hold, low-lying coral atoll islands — like the Maldives, the Marshall Islands and even parts of Hawaii — will lack the necessary freshwater and infrastructure to sustain inhabitation by the mid-21st century. Not only could its drinking water be washed away by the rising ocean, but the Maldives could be completely submerged in the next 81 years. A report from the Maldives’ Ministry of Environment, Energy and Water says that in the worst-case scenario, the archipelago could be completely submerged by 2100.
The island of Rapa Nui, commonly called Easter Island, is the most remote inhabited island on Earth. It sits in the middle of the Pacific Ocean more than 2,000 miles off the coast of its parent nation, Chile. Rapa Nui is famous for its ancient, monolithic statues, called moai, that are thought to depict the island’s disappeared civilization and their ancestors. The moai statues also sit on platforms that contain ancient human remains. Most of the island’s 5,000 inhabitants’ livelihoods depend on tourists visiting the island to see the iconic statues.
But now, due to rising sea levels, moai are being damaged by waves encroaching on the tiny island’s perimeter and washing up ancient remains from their eternal resting places.
“You feel an impotency in this, to not be able to protect the bones of your own ancestors,” Camilo Rapu, the leader of an indigenous group that oversees the island’s national park and archeological artifacts, told The New York Times. “It hurts immensely.”
The situation may only worsen in coming decades. The UN said that Rapa Nui’s coast line, where most of the statues sit, will be eroded by rising tides, and taller waves will jump protective walls on the shore and topple the moai.
Rio de Janeiro
One of the draws of Rio de Janeiro is its beautiful beaches like Copacabana. But if the global temperature raises by just 3 degrees Celsius, Rio’s beaches would be drowned by rising sea levels, the Guardian reported, as would its domestic airport Santos Dumont (SDU) and neighborhoods farther inland, like Barra de Tijuca, which hosted the Olympics in 2016 and is home to more than 174,000 Brazilians.
Recent climate models project that by 2100, the Earth’s overall temperature will rise by about 3.2 degrees Celsius, leaving many cities like Rio significantly submerged.
Cape Floral Region
The Floral Region in Cape Town, South Africa, is one of the most biodiverse places on Earth. The area encompasses nearly 2.5 million acres of protected land and includes Table Mountain, Garden Route National Parks and Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden. Known for its wide array of colorful wildflowers, distinctive plants, fine bush vegetation and sweeping views, Cape Town’s floral region draws thousands of nature tourists each year. At least 30% of the plant species found in the region are not found anywhere else on the planet, National Geographic says.
But hotter temperatures, as well as droughts in Cape Town, are threatening the survival of the region’s wildflowers, according to the UN.
“Climate models suggest that by 2070 the [floral region] will experience average temperatures over 10 months of the year that would have been considered extreme in 1961 to 1990,” a recent UN report said. “There is also evidence that the incidence of very large fires has increased since the 1990s, and the total average area burned annually has expanded significantly since the 1980s.”
The more extreme climate conditions are also hurting bird populations that pollenate the plants, like the orange-breasted sunbird and Cape sugarbird, which accelerates the wildflowers’ demise.
Statue of Liberty
Not all the world-famous destinations threatened by climate change are natural. Lady Liberty is an iconic emblem of not just New York City, but also of America in general. But, the UN warns that this seemingly indelible symbol of freedom is at risk of being washed away by sea-level rise, increased intensity of storms and storm surges due to climate change.
“Flood waters from Hurricane Sandy inundated 75% of Liberty Island, and although the statue and its pedestal were not harmed or flooded, extensive damage was caused to facilities and infrastructure,” a recent UN climate change report says. Future storms, which will likely be stronger, could cause even more extensive damage, as could rising water levels. The water on the East Coast of the US is some of the fastest-rising water in the world.
“Sea levels along the Atlantic coast from Cape Hatteras, North Carolina to Maine, including New York,” the UN’s report said, “have been rising at four times the rate of the rest of the US coast during the last 20 years.”
The Belize Barrier Reef
The 200 mile-long Belize Barrier Reef is the largest barrier reef in the Northern Hemisphere and home to many disappearing species, including marine turtles, manatees and the American marine crocodile.
The reef was in its most dire condition in 2009, when it was added to UNESCO’s List of World Heritage in Danger due to the destruction of coastal mangrove plants and oil and gas exploration around the reef. The government of Belize took notice and put protections on the mangrove plants, which are vital to the reef’s ecosystem, and limited oil and gas exploration activity in the reef’s vicinity. After the concerted conservation effort, the reef was taken off the endangered list in June 2018.
But the Belize Barrier Reef is not out of the woods yet. Like all reef systems around the world, coral bleaching due to warming oceans remains a looming threat. Bleaching occurs when the water temperature gets too hot and kills the algae-like organisms that grow on coral, giving them their bright colors and supplying them with energy.
“These huge marine heatwaves, which are being exacerbated by global warming, are equivalent to an atomic bomb in terms of impact on coral reefs — they kill millions of corals across huge areas of ocean in a very short time,” said Anne Cohen, a scientist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, in a recent study. According to statistics from the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, “More than 75% of Earth’s tropical reefs experienced bleaching-level heat stress between 2014 and 2017.”
Stonehenge, the mysterious Neolithic monument in Wiltshire, England has drawn curious tourists to the English countryside for centuries. But harsh weather patterns as a result of climate change could put the site in grave danger. The UN, which declared the monument a UNESCO World Heritage site, said that, “increasingly extreme weather, including storms and flooding,” could significantly damage Stonehenge in coming years.
“Of most concern for Stonehenge are increasing rainfall amounts, more extreme rainfall events and worsening floods,” a 2016 UN report stated. “Flash floods can result in damage through gullying and wetter conditions are also expected to increase the impact of visitors walking on the site.”
Most visitors to the prehistoric site are being directed to a visitors’ center to help stymie the damage to the precarious stones. Access to the actual stone circle has been limited to groups of no more than 30 people that request the special access, and takes place outside of general admission hours, in the early morning or late at night.
Venice is set to be underwater within a century if sea levels continue to rise at current rates. If, based on current greenhouse gas emissions, the world’s oceans do in fact rise five or six feet by 2100, then that’s the year most of Venice will be underwater.
Because the city spans several islands, some of which are below sea level, Venice is familiar with flooding. In October 2018, the city saw one of its worst floods since the 1960s. At least 17 people were killed in the extreme acqua alta, or high tide incident, and iconic structures were damaged. The ancient marble in St. Mark’s Basilica, for instance, was severely marred by the salt water of the flood.
“In a single day, the basilica aged 20 years, but perhaps this is an optimistic consideration,” the head of the Basilica’s board, Carlo Alberto Tesserin, wrote in a statement after the flood.
To combat large scale floods, which are predicted to become more frequent as higher waters advance, Venice has long been working on a system of flood gates between the city’s lagoon and the Adriatic Sea. The project, called Experimental Electromechanical Module (or MOSE) has been under construction since 2003, has been rife with corruption and — $6.5 billion later — doesn’t seem anywhere close to functional.
Glacier National Park
Montana’s Glacier National Park is home to 39 significant, named glaciers. But those ice formations for which the park is famous are rapidly shrinking, a 2017 study from the US Geological Survey and Portland State University said.
Since 1966, global warming has “dramatically reduced” the size of the 39 glaciers, some by as much as 85%.
“While the shrinkage in Montana is more severe than some other places in the US, it is in line with trends that have been happening on a global scale,” Andrew G. Fountain, a geologist with Portland State, said in the study.
“The park-wide loss of ice can have ecological effects on aquatic species by changing stream water volume, water temperature and run-off timing in the higher elevations of the park,” lead USGS scientist Dr. Daniel Fagre said of the study. He also told the Guardian it was “inevitable” all the park’s glaciers will disappear, noting that “the glaciers have waxed and waned with different climate fluctuations but this is the first time they are heading for almost certain extinction.”
Glaciers all across the world are threatened by climate change, including those in Antarctica and the Himalayas. A number of new studies point to rapidly accelerating glacier melt in both regions, and the threat to not only the natural beauty of these destinations, but also the livelihoods of people who live and work there and the native flora and fauna, is alarming.
The Dead Sea
The shores of the Dead Sea sit 1,300 feet below sea level and are the planet’s lowest point on land. The sea is fed by the Jordan River, and as the water’s dead end, is awash in tons of salt — enough salt to keep swimmers afloat near the water’s surface.
But the Dead Sea is drying up. According to a 2017 Columbia University study, the sea’s water level has recently been dropping about four feet per year. This is mainly due to people diverting water from the Jordan River to use as drinking water. Less water is reaching the Dead Sea, and hotter temperatures due to global warming are speeding evaporation of the water that does reach it.
“All the observations show this region is one of those most affected by modern climate change, and it’s predicted to get dryer [sic],” said Yael Kiro, a geochemist at Columbia University and lead author of the study.
Another similar study also showed that thousands of years ago, water sources in that region almost completely dried up due to extreme drought. “The Dead Sea is wasting away today because humans are using up all its fresh water sources,” said Steven Goldstein, a geochemist at Lamont-Doherty “Our study shows that in the past, without any human intervention, the fresh water nearly stopped flowing. This means that if it keeps getting hotter now, it could stop running again. This time, it would affect millions of people.”
Featured illustration by Abbie Winters.
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