In 2016, five tiny islands in the remotest regions of the Pacific Ocean were engulfed by rising seas.
Part of the low-lying Solomon Islands, the tiny atolls completely vanished in what’s thought to be the first scientific confirmation of the impacts of global warming. Research documenting the disappearance of these islands in the May 2016 issue of the journal Environmental Research Letters presents an unsettling snapshot of the shifts taking place across the planet and a window into the future impacts of sea level rise around the world.
In addition to the islands that have disappeared, a further six islands are experiencing severe shoreline erosion. What’s more, shoreline recession has already destroyed villages that have existed since at least 1935, forcing entire community relocations.
“Climate change induced sea-level rise is anticipated to be one of the greatest challenges for humanity over the coming century,” states the report, written by a group of Australian researchers.
The Solomon Islands are just one example of climate change impacts being seen around the world.
Whether it’s the receding glacier atop legendary Mt. Kilimanjaro or melting ice shelves in the Arctic, the fact is the changes to these iconic places are more visible with each passing day and year.
Compounding the effects of climate change is the growth and expansion of tourism itself, which is hastening the downward spiral of many fragile sites. The Galapagos Islands, for instance, used to be largely uninhabited, but now have hotels on them, putting pressure on natural resources, introducing invasive species and more, according to experts.
“The Arctic is melting, animals are dying, UNESCO sites are crumbling – you could be overwhelmed by all of these seemingly insurmountable problems,” said Michaela Guzy, founder, host, and producer of the sustainable travel video series and online site Oh The People You Meet. “Or you could pick one cause that resonates with you and become an ambassador for that.”
With Guzy’s suggestion in mind, here’s a look at three iconic endangered destinations around the world that you can help to preserve through travel choices, actions, and advocacy.
A sprawling temple complex in Cambodia and the largest religious monument in the world, Angkor Wat attracts three million visitors annually. The stunning religious site encompasses the remains of the different capitals of the Khmer Empire dating back to the Ninth to 15th centuries.
Though crumbling, Angkor’s temples have stood the test of time thus far. But the combined effects of climate change and tourism pose enormous threats to this UNESCO World Heritage Site.
One of the main issues is the decline of the groundwater table underneath Angkor Wat, which is being depleted by the increasing resident and visitor demand for water. During just two decades, (1993 to 2013), water usage multiplied 300-fold. The concern is that the tremendously increased water removal could cause the temples to collapse.
So what can you do to help and should you still visit?
There’s no need to scratch it off the bucket list, says Guzy, but be thoughtful about your presence. Instead of climbing the temples like millions of others, which leads to further damage, admire them from the ground.
And rather than making a beeline for the primary temples at Angkor Wat along with everyone else, opt for less heavily visited areas of the sprawling empire, places where millions of feet have not already passed, giving the main temples a break.
“Take that selfie on the ground in front of the temple. Instead of participating in the problem, be enlightened,” said Guzy. “But also, it’s more interesting to get off the beaten path. There are so many other temples there you can learn about. There are more than 1,000 temples.”
Hire a guide and head into the jungle, she said.
“When you actually go out on those trails, you come across little monasteries with monks that you wouldn’t have ever found otherwise and there are a lot of other beautiful temples to be found all around,” said Guzy.
Great Barrier Reef
Spread across 133,000 square miles, the Great Barrier Reef is the largest living thing on the planet, visible even from space.
But this UNESCO World Heritage Site has suffered repeated bleaching events, brought on by warming seas. In 2016, bleaching caused by warmer water killed about 67% of the reef’s northern section, an area previously the most pristine, according to ARC Center of Excellent for Coral Reef Studies, the premier organization studying coral reefs.
When it occurred, the 2016 coral die-off was described as the worst to date. Then another bleaching occurred in April 2017. The second such event in just 12 months, vast tracts in the middle portion of the reef were severely damaged.
“The combined impact of this back-to-back bleaching stretches for 1,500 km (900 miles), leaving only the southern third unscathed,” said ARC Director Terry Hughes, who did aerial surveys in both 2016 and 2017. “The bleaching is caused by record-breaking temperatures driven by global warming. This year, 2017, we are seeing mass bleaching, even without the assistance of El Niño conditions.”
Climate change is just one threat, overfishing and pollution are also major challenges.
So what can you do? In addition to reducing your carbon footprint on a daily basis, consider visiting alternative, but similarly stunning destinations or opting for less impactful ways to observe the reef, said Guzy.
Instead of the Great Barrier Reef, for instance, visit Australia’s Eyre Peninsula and swim with giant tuna or go swim with whale sharks and sea turtles in the Ningaloo Reef, off Australia’s western coast, said Guzy.
“Ningaloo is very remote, very stunning,” continued Guzy. “When you’re swimming and diving you’ll see whale sharks, there’s also sea turtles and huge manta rays, and you’re just swimming around with them, and it’s way less crowded.”
If you still want to see the Great Barrier Reef, find a tour operator who makes clear they engage in sustainable practices or consider viewing the reef from an alternative perspective, such as from a plane ride above the reef.
The Galapagos Islands
One of the world’s foremost wildlife viewing destinations, the Galapagos Islands face many threats, including climate change, deforestation, and pollution.
The increasing human presence on the islands is the cause of many of the problems. Around 30,000 people live in the Galapagos and almost 200,000 people visit annually, according to The Galapagos Conservation Trust.
There’s also now tourist hotels on the islands, and even Airbnbs—a dramatic change from years past.
“You’ve had more hotels being built in the Galapagos, creating cheaper travel options, leading to a bigger influx of people, which causes more pressure on water resources, garbage resources, and it has led to the introduction of invasive species,” says Jonathan Brunger, general manager of Adventure Life, a travel company committed to preserving the places it visits. “Not only are visitors having an impact, but you need to supply all these hotels, which means cargo containers arriving…And all of this development brings more migration, more Ecuadorians choosing to make a living there off of tourism. It’s a destination that’s been impacted quite a bit over the years.”
Man-made changes alone have had the single biggest impact on the size of the animal and plant populations on these remarkable islands since they were discovered in 1535, says The Galapagos Conservation Trust. This is in large part through the introduction of invasive animal and plant species, many of which aggressively out-compete native species, posing an enormous threat to biodiversity.
Again, the question is, what can you as the tourist or global citizen do differently?
Brunger says visiting responsibly is important, and this includes choosing not to stay on the islands in a hotel, but rather visiting via boat, as was the standard for years.
You can also look for tour operators who declare openly that they follow sustainable practices, such as conserving water and energy, and recycling and treating waste material, all of which is required by The Galapagos National Park Directorate and the Ecuadorian Ministry of Tourism.
In addition, there are travel companies that go beyond merely complying with regulations, proactively seeking to preserve the Galapagos by supporting community and conservation projects. The Galapagos Conservation Trust maintains a list of conservation travel partners here.
These three destinations, the Galapagos, the Great Barrier Reef, and Angkor Wat, merely scratch the surface of the changes taking place worldwide. In Antarctica, major ices shelves have broken apart, retreated or lost volume in recent decades, and the trend continues today with a crack in the Larsen C shelf growing this year, said Brunger.
Venice’s Piazza San Marco floods more each year. And in Alaska, time lapse photography reveals changes taking place on the tundra, where trees are now encroaching as global temperatures rise.
Elimination of tourism is not the solution. Those seeking to protect these places say people need to have a connection to them in order to be passionate about continuing to advocate for preservation. The best thing you can do as a traveler is to visit responsibly, finding sustainably-minded tour operators and engaging in responsible travel practices.
“Give me a million visitors per year with all of the carbon impacts and I will protect these places forever,” said Daan Vreugdenhil, a PhD who works with the World Bank and United Nations developing national parks around the world for eco-tourism and sustainable use. “It’s the only way to get popular support to keep them. Without people visiting they become like an exotic National Geographic magazine kind of thing, ‘Oh, that’s so beautiful,’ but people won’t have the attachment needed to help them survive.”