11 Natural Wonders to See before They Are Gone
Global warming may transform these places beyond recognition
Mahajamba Bay One of the largest of the remaining mangrove forests may drown. Mangroves once covered much of the coastlines of Africa and Asia, but these places where rivers meet sea under the shelter of swampy trees are under threat from a variety of human activities, including coastal development—despite providing valuable shelter from tropical cyclones and even tsunamis. In Madagascar, rising sea levels and temperatures may overwhelm the Mahajamba Bay mangroves even before humanity has a chance to replace them with shrimp farms.
Amazon Rainforest Logging and fire have returned to threaten the Amazon Rainforest, which sprawls over 5.5 million square kilometers in Brazil, Peru, Colombia, Bolivia, Ecuador, French Guiana, Guyana, Suriname and Venezuela, currently. After years of reduced human impacts, agribusiness, farmers and loggers have begun to eat away at the forest anew, according to the most recent statistics and satellite images. Less forest means less rain, a problem that may be exacerbated as the climate changes and dries out the world's largest remaining rainforest.
Credit: Daniel Nepstad
Monteverde Cloud Forest This tropical rainforest some 1,700 meters above sea level in the volcanic mountains of central Costa Rica gets its name from living among permanent clouds. The humidity is often 100 percent. But as the warming climate drives those clouds further up and even off the mountainsides, their ascent is exposing the lower reaches of the cloud forest to higher temperatures and drier conditions. That shift may mean the eventual end of the green mountains of Monteverde.
Credit: Flickr.com / Sarah Oosterveld
The fynbos This 90,000-square-kilometer strip of scrubland in the Western Cape of South Africa hosts a greater array of unique flowers than anywhere else on the continent. Its distinctive proteas, such as the king protea that is South Africa's national flower, evolved in the cooler climate of the geologic past and are therefore especially susceptible to rising temperatures, which may also bring increased wildfires.
Credit: S. Molteno Advertisement
The Arctic Mysterious craters in Siberia, drunken trees in Alaska, gas plumes burning above Canadian lakes—all speak to the same thaw of the Arctic. This rapid warm-up in the Earth's northerly air conditioner will mean even faster global warming as more of the greenhouse gas methane enters the atmosphere and darker earth or open waters replace reflective white snow and ice. Summertime sea ice may become a memory, and even the iconic white polar bear may brown as it interbreeds with the bears moving north into warming climes.
Credit: USGS / Steven C. Amstrup
Doñana wetlands Migratory birds in Europe face a host of threats, not least hunting traditions. Now pollution and loss of groundwater due to farming have begun to shrink these seasonal marshes in southern Spain, one of the last wintering sites for waterfowl in Europe. Add global warming's impacts as well and UNESCO believes this natural wonder faces a "very high threat" of disappearing.
Credit: Hector Garrido / EBD-CSIC
The Ross Ice Shelf This floating sheet of ice in Antarctica covers 487,000 square kilometers and holds huge volumes of fresh water. It is also one of the fastest-warming regions on the entire planet, which puts it at risk of a meltdown like the collapse of the Larsen B ice shelf back in 2002. That collapse saw a chunk of ice more than 2,700 square kilometers—larger than Rhode Island—disintegrate in a matter of weeks.
Courtesy of NASA / NSIDC
Snows of Kilimanjaro Despite being one of the largest volcanoes in the world, Kilimanjaro has a glacier at its summit. Like mountaintop glaciers across the globe—whether in Peru or New Zealand—the iconic snows of Kilimanjaro are melting and will disappear if global warming continues at its present pace. In fact, places like Glacier National Park in the U.S. may lose their namesake attractions soon.
Courtesy of Muhammad Mahdi Karim Advertisement
Boreal forest This vast global forest, dominated by conifer trees, covers much of Canada, Russia and Scandinavia. But as the northern regions continue to warm, the southern edge of the boreal forest will give way to grasslands, and the forest as a whole could shrink by half. Meanwhile, wildfires and new insect threats—like the pine beetle eating enormous swaths of forest land to death today—will plague the remnant.
The Great Barrier Reef It's not just warming waters affecting the world's largest reef, which stretches 2,600 kilometers. It is also the acidification of the surrounding oceans. In addition, human pollution is exacerbating disease in the reef ecosystem, and dredging and sewage are burying sections of the reef in sediment and sludge. Already nearly half of all the living coral on the reef is gone. The reef itself could become but a skeletal remnant, like those that dot the Caribbean. In fact, coral reefs the world over are struggling with rising water temperatures, among other human-induced challenges.
Credit: Courtesy of ESA / NASA Advertisement
The world changes a little faster these days. As concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere
tick up year over year, more and more of the sun's heat gets trapped. That heat affects the planet in a variety of ways: raising global average temperatures, melting ice, increasing downpours, lengthening droughts and more. And this global warming is already transforming some of the places humans hold most dear.
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization keeps a list of what it deems world heritage sites: human-made or natural places of "outstanding universal value," from the Palace of Versailles in France to the
Sundarbans mangrove forest in Bangladesh. There are more than 1,000 such places now—and many of them may be changed beyond recognition by global warming.
Expertise. Insights. Illumination.
Discover world-changing science. Explore our digital archive back to 1845, including articles by more than 150 Nobel Prize winners.