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A third of world heritage glaciers under threat: UNESCO

  • Published
    7th Nov, 2022

A study conducted by the UN body has found, that a third of the glaciers on the UNESCO World Heritage list is under threat, regardless of efforts to limit temperature increases.


Key highlights of the Study

The UNESCO study was done in partnership with the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

  • Glaciers on the UNESCO World Heritage List have been retreating at an accelerated rate since 2000 due to CO2 emissions, which are warming temperatures.
  • Ice loss: They are currently losing 58 billion tonnes of ice every year, equivalent to the combined annual water use of France and Spain.
  • Sea-level rise: They are responsible for nearly 5% of the observed global sea level rise.

Required measures

  • The study also says that it is still possible to save the other two-thirds if the rise in global temperature did not exceed 1.5°C compared to the preindustrial era.
  • Only a rapid reduction in our CO2 emission levels can save glaciers and the exceptional biodiversity that depends on them.
  • COP27 will have a crucial role to help find solutions to this issue.
  • United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) is advocating for the creation of a new international fund for glacier monitoring and preservation.
    • Such a fund would support comprehensive research, early warning, and disaster risk reduction measures.
  • This study highlights the urgent need to cut greenhouse gas emissions and invest in nature-based solutions.

Several iconic landscapes found in World Heritage sites are:

  • Fifty UNESCO World Heritage sites are home to glaciers, representing almost 10% of the Earth's total glacierized area.
    • They include the highest (next to Mt Everest), the longest (in Alaska), and the last remaining glaciers in Africa.
    • Los Glaciares National Park in Argentina contains some of the largest glaciers on the Earth and is threatened by very large ice loss – about 60% of the current volume – by 2100.
    • In Europe, the disappearance of small glaciers is projected in the Pyrenees — Mont Perdu World Heritage site before 2040.
    • TeWahipounamu — South West New Zealand, which contains three-quarters of New Zealand’s glaciers, is projected to lose 25% to 80% of the current ice volume over the course of this century.

World Heritage List:

  • The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) seeks to encourage the identification, protection, and preservation of cultural and natural heritage around the world considered to be of outstanding value to humanity. It has World Heritage List for the same.
  • This is embodied in an international treaty called the Convention concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage, adopted by UNESCO in 1972.

Significance of glaciers:

  • Glaciers as Reservoirs: About three-quarters of Earth's freshwater is stored in glaciers. Therefore, glacier ice is the second-largest reservoir of water on Earth and the largest reservoir of freshwater on Earth.
    • The cold runoff from glaciers also affects downstream water temperatures.
  • Glacier-feeding Rivers: The Gangotri Glacier, one of the largest glaciers in the Himalayan Mountains, is the source of the Ganga River.
    • The Ganges is the most important source of fresh water and electricity in India and Bangladesh.
  • Glaciers for Aquatic Life: Many aquatic species in mountainous environments require cold water temperatures to survive which is provided by Glaciers.
    • Some aquatic insects are especially sensitive to stream temperature and cannot survive without the cooling effects of glacial meltwater.
    • Such changes in stream habitat may also adversely impact native trout and other keystone salmon species.
  • Glaciers for People: Glaciers provide people with many useful resources. Glacial till provides fertile soil for growing crops.
    • Deposits of sand and gravel are used to make concrete and asphalt.

Classification of Glaciers

Glaciers can be classified according to their:

  • Size (i.e. ice sheet, ice cap, valley glacier, cirque glacier)
    • Ice Cap
    • Valley Glaciers
    • Ice Sheets
  • Thermal regime (polar vs. temperate)
    • Polar Glacier
    • Temperate Glacier

Landforms Formed:

  • Erosional Landforms
    • Glacial Valleys/Troughs
    • Cirques
    • Horns and Serrated
  • Depositional Landforms
    • Glacial Till
    • Moraines
    • Eskers
    • Drumlins
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