World Ocean Day 2021: This is how climate change may alter 10 of the world’s natural wonders

Dryer climates, stronger storms and rising sea levels could destroy the sites.

8 June 2021

Natural wonders around the world may be altered forever — or even cease to exist — if global temperatures continue to rise.

Climate change is contributing to rising sea levels and more intense weather events, which will not only leave humans and landscapes vulnerable but also some of the world’s treasures as well.

Norway-based outdoor guide company Outforia used research and predictions from a plethora of published scientific papers to illustrate what could happen to 10 beloved landmarks if drastic measures are not soon taken to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The company chose which landmarks to feature based on sites that mean “a lot to a lot of different people,” Carl Borg, founder of Outforia, told ABC News.

The deterioration of any of the landmarks would be a “great loss,” both for humans who will no longer be able to experience the wonders and for the ecosystems and species that depend on the sites for survival, Borg said.

The Alps, mainland Europe

The Alps, the expansive mountain range that stretches across much of mainland Europe, may lose the glaciers and optimal ski conditions it is best known for if temperatures continue to rise.

The warming temperatures are affecting both the composition of the permafrost that holds the rocks together as well as the volume of the snow, according to the European Environmental Agency.

As the ice melts and falls, it creates a hazard for both locals and millions of tourists who visit the Alps annually, Fabrizio Troilo, a geologist for the Italian-based organization Safe Mountain Foundation, told ABC News in 2018 as glaciers atop Mont Blanc, located in the Alps between Italy and France, continued to melt in response to the warming Earth.

Glaciers in the European Alps could lose up to 90% of their ice by 2100 if greenhouse gas emissions continue as business as usual, a study published in 2019 in The Cryosphere, part of the European Geosciences Union, found.

Borg, who grew up skiing in the Alps, said the issue is “close” to him.

“It’s really one destination that will see severe change,” he said.

The North Pole

Sea ice in the Arctic could disappear altogether by 2035 due to warming climates, which could potentially impact both organisms living in the North Pole and humans living thousands of miles away, according to a 2020 study published in Nature Climate Change.

In 2019, the Greenland Ice Sheet lost a record 1 million metric tons per minute, amounting to nearly 600 billion tons, according to a study published in Communications Earth & Environment based off NASA satellite imagery.

Polar sea ice helps to regulate Earth’s climate by reflecting the sun’s energy back into space, rather than allowing the dark seawater to absorb the radiation and make the global climate even warmer.

In addition, animals such as polar bears, which hunt seals from the ice, depend on it. Polar bears were added to the list of protected species under the Endangered Species Act in 2008 due to the melting of their habitat.

“That’s 14 years from now, where the North Pole will only be reachable by boat for the first time in human history,” Borg said.

The Everglades, Florida

Rising sea levels could potentially drown the Everglades, the expansive tropical wetlands located in South Florida, in saltwater.

Due to a combination of melting glaciers and ice sheets, as well as thermal expansion of seawater as it warms, sea levels have already risen about 8 to 9 inches since the 19th century, with about a third of that coming in just the last 5 years, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Global sea levels will likely rise at least another 12 inches by 2100 according to the latest models, “even if greenhouse gas emissions follow a relatively low pathway in coming decades,” according to NOAA.

With Florida’s flat topography, the state is especially vulnerable to sea level rise, Jayantha Obeysekera, director of the Sea Level Solutions Center, told ABC News. The effects of climate change are already being seen in urban areas such as Miami Beach, where “sunny day” flooding, which takes place in the absence of rain, is already happening during high tides, Obeysekera said.

As the ocean water comes in, the elevation in the Everglades is in danger of collapsing as the ocean water interacts with the natural ecosystem’s swamp water, Obeysekera said.

The influx of salt will also not be conducive to maintaining the sensitive ecosystem of the Everglades, which is integral in housing mangroves and other vegetation in the region, Obeysekera said.

Victoria Falls, Zambia & Zimbabwe

Victoria Falls, the waterfall on the Zambezi River in Africa, where water gushes more than 300 feet below, could dry up as a result of climate change.

In 2019, the falls slowed to a trickle after the worst drought in the region in a century.

The event, which included the lowest water flow since 1995, was described as “a stark reminder of what climate change is doing to our environment.”

As severe droughts increase in the region as a result of climate change, scientists fear that the falls could potentially dry up for good, Borg said.

The absence of the Victoria Falls could also kill the tourism industry in the region, which welcomes millions of visitors each year.

Borg noted the illustration Outforia rendered for the Victoria Falls as having one of the starkest differences between the before and after shots, especially since the “after” illustration was based off the image taken amid the 2019 drought, he said.

The Great Salt Lake, the eight-largest terminal lake in the world and the largest saltwater lake, is losing its volume at alarming rates, and climate change is partly to blame.

As of 2017, the lake had lost half of its water since the first settlers, Mormon pioneers, arrived in 1847, according to a study published in Nature Geoscience.

Most of the decline was attributed to modern civilization, as humans continue to take water out of rivers and streams that once fed the lake to be used in homes, farms and industries. But, weather and climate change are responsible for the drop as well.

The demise of the Great Salt Lake would spell trouble for the environment, as well as the biodiversity in the region, according to a recent study published last year in Springer Nature.

If the lake were to dry out, dust storms would be a great concern due to the decades of heavy metals and toxic substances that remain trapped in the sediment. In addition, bird populations would suffer. The brine shrimp that is harvested from the lake and sold as food would disappear. Industries that extract minerals from the lake for fertilizers and lightweight metals would likely close — shuttering an industry worth $1.3 billion, The Salt Lake Tribune reported.

Joshua Tree National Park, California

The iconic Joshua trees of Southern California could disappear as a result of warming temperatures.

Scientists predict that Joshua Tree National Park, nestled near the Colorado Desert and the Mojave Desert, will lose almost all of its Joshua trees by 2070, when the suitable habitat is predicted to be whittled down to just .02% of current levels, according to a 2019 study published in Ecosphere.

Severe drought may cause species like the Joshua tree, desert tortoise and desert bighorn sheep to seek higher elevations that receive more rainfall, according to the National Park Service.

Not only is the health of the yucca moths, which the Joshua trees rely on to reproduce, in peril, but the trees face increased danger of rampaging wildfires in the west, according to the study.

“They are really the sort of the most common and distinctive feature of this desert and a very important part of the ecosystem,” Borg said, lamenting the potential loss of the species. “They are providing food and shelter for all sorts of different creatures.”

The saguaro cactus, known for its distinctive shape and cultural significance as an emblem of the landscape in the southwestern U.S., has been on the decline for years due to climate change, according to a 2018 report by the National Park Service.

Drought, as well as invasive plants such as buffelgrass and stinknet that cover the desert floor, have left the cacti susceptible to fast-spreading wildfires.

But once the cacti melt away, it does not grow back. The plants need “very specific conditions” to reproduce and replenish their population, and highly variable or extreme weather makes it difficult for the saguaro to thrive, according to the National Park Service.

The saguaro cactus has been living in the region for more than 5,000 years, Borg said.

The number of saguaros surviving in Saguaro National Park in Pima County, Arizona, has been on the decline for decades, according to the NPS. The number of young saguaros surviving in the park has been low since the mid-1990s due to drought.

Low winter temperatures in the region have risen 10 to 15 degrees in the last century, according to the NPS.

Great Barrier Reef, Australia

The underwater ecosystem in the Great Barrier Reef, the largest living structure in the world, is at risk of losing both its coral and the organisms it houses.

As the climate warms, coral bleaching occurs. When the water is too warm, the algae the corals expel from their tissues cause them to turn completely white.

The Great Barrier Reef has lost half of its coral since 1995, a study published last year in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B found.

Coral reefs will stop growing in the next decade or so unless a significant reduction in greenhouse gases is achieved, a new study published last month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests.

The research highlights a “grim picture” for the future of coral reefs, Christopher Cornwall, a marine botanist at the Victoria University of Wellington in Australia, told ABC News via email.

The conservation status for the reef declined to “critical” levels in 2020 due to increasing impacts associated with climate change, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s 2020 World Heritage Outlook report.

“The only hope for coral reef ecosystems to remain as close as possible to what they are now is to quickly and drastically reduce our CO2 emissions,” Cornwall said. “If not, they will be dramatically altered and cease their ecological benefits as hotspots of biodiversity, sources of food and tourism, and their provision of shoreline protection.”

The decline of the coral has also resulted in decreasing populations of certain marine species, researchers found. The reef houses more than 1,500 species of fish.

In addition, should sea levels continue to rise due to climate change, reefs will no longer be effective at protecting coastlines because the production will not be able to keep up with the amount of melting ice, Cornwall said.

The White Cliffs of Dover, the region of English coastline facing the Strait of Dover and France, could eventually fade away as rising sea levels and stronger storms with fiercer waves batter the cliffs, eventually shrinking them to a fraction of the current size.

The cliffs are a historic symbol of the southern coast of the United Kingdom but have been eroding at a rate up to 10 times faster than the past several thousand years, scientists say.

Over most of the past 7,000 years, the erosion rate of the cliffs was about two centimeters a year, according to a 2016 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Over the past 150 years, the erosion rate has been between 22 and 32 centimeters a year, researchers said.

The increase has been as a result of climate change and human interference, as the sand and gravel has been shifted to protect specific beaches, according to the study.

Glacier National Park, Montana

Glacier National Park is warming at nearly two times the global average, which is already shrinking glaciers and increasing wildfires, according to the National Park Service.

The park’s glaciers, the main attraction for hikers and backpackers, have been naturally cycling through periods of advance and retreat for thousands of years, but the current retreat began soon after the peak in 1850, when the warming trend began, according to NPS.

Just 26 of the parks original 150 glaciers remained as of 2015, and all the glaciers could potentially be lost within decades, according to a report by the U.S. Geological Survey.

“This is just one sort of place where what is happening, but really is part of a bigger pattern that is really affecting a lot of different glaciers worldwide,” Borg said.

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