Fastest Disappearing Natural Wonders
Imagine: you’re hiking along a switchback high in China’s Shen Nong Gorge. Built into the cliffs in the manner of birds’ nests are nearly 100 coffins dating back millennia; below, pods of freshwater dolphin frolic in the Yangtze River. That was two years ago. Today, the hanging coffins are submerged and the dolphins extinct—both victims of the rising waters of the Three Gorges dam.
It’s no secret that humans have burnt, hacked, chopped, and poisoned our way through more forests, reefs, and wetlands than you can shake an old-growth stick at. Combine that with global warming, and the effects are often devastating. In spite of all this, natural wonders are surprisingly abundant, and they’re easier to visit than ever before.
Take Antarctica, for example, accessible by a three-hour flight from Punta Arenas, Argentina, or a three-day expedition cruise with Abercrombie & Kent. Dr. James McClintock, professor of polar and marine biology at the University of Alabama and lecturer for A&K, explains that the midwinter temperature at the South Pole—the most pristine wilderness on earth—has increased by nearly two degrees Fahrenheit per decade over the last 60 years. “Ten years ago at the research station, I would hear a glacier calving into the bay once every week; now it’s three times a day,” McClintock says.
For those of us who prefer to experience natural wonders minus the polar fleece and mittens, there’s Montana’s Glacier National Park, with 700 miles of trails, close to 1,000 campsites, and two historic Swiss chalet lodges. Those lodges were built when glaciers were, apparently, too numerous to count; today, according to Richard Armstrong—senior research scientist from the National Snow and Ice Data Center based in Boulder, CO—those glaciers are quickly falling victim to global warming.
Our impact has been massive below the water as well. According to Dr. Sylvia Earle, explorer, author, and winner of the prestigious TED Prize in 2009, nearly half of the world’s coral reefs have disappeared. And still, areas like the Great Barrier Reef are not wholly protected marine environments; in fact, commercial fishing is still perfectly legal throughout a majority of the reef. Fortunately, there’s still time to dive below the surface to explore the reef’s mesmerizing colors and otherworldly fish.
There is good news, though: some natural wonders are actually growing. According to a recent UNESCO report, deserts and other arid zones cover more than a third of the world’s land, and they’re getting bigger. The Sahara, once a savanna of grasslands and lakes, creeps ever southward, and impressive new deserts are forming in China and Madagascar. (Okay, most of this expansion is proof that humans have altered our planet, but they’re still amazing phenomena nonetheless.)
When it comes to nature’s most fragile of wonders, our motto is: See them, love them, preserve them. The next time you plan a trip, this is the list you’ll want to use for inspiration.
Great Barrier Reef
Australia’s legendary coral ecosystem—roughly the size of Japan—may disappear by 2030. The Australian Conservation Foundation claims that a rise in ocean temperatures of just 3–5 degrees Fahrenheit, combined with more acidic water, could leave 97 percent of the Great Barrier Reef bleached and lifeless. To help reefs worldwide, explorer and author Dr. Sylvia Earle recommends watching sea life swim in the ocean rather than ordering it sautéed in butter and lemon. “For every 10 pounds [of seafood] that goes to market, another 10 pounds, even 100 pounds gets thrown away,” she says.
How to See It Now: Measure, tag, and save the wildlife of the Great Barrier Reef with Intrepid Travel.
Glacier National Park
In 1850, Glacier National Park was home to 150 glaciers. Today, there are only 26, and the future looks grim: here, a warmer climate may encourage plants to bloom too early. According to the National Wildlife Federation, pollinating birds may arrive too late for the insects and plants on which they rely, throwing the whole cycle out of sync.
How to See It Now: Bike the famous Going-to-the-Sun Road and raft the Flathead River, once used by fur traders, secure in the knowledge that you’ll never be crowded out at the campfire come dinnertime. Go with Austin-Lehman, where the guest-to-guide ratio is never more than 6-to-1; the company is also a member of Sustainable Travel International.
The lowest lying nation on earth (at its highest elevation, it’s the same height as NBA star Yao Ming), the Republic of Maldives is the canary in the coal mine for global warming. The country’s president, Mohamed Nasheed, is determined to set a good example: he aims to rid the country of fossil fuel, burning coconut husks for power and establishing massive wind and solar plants in an effort to make the country carbon neutral by 2020. In case that doesn’t work, land has been purchased in neighboring countries to house the country’s 380,000 inhabitants who would be made homeless by a rise in sea level of just three feet.
How to See It Now: Stay at Banyan Tree Vabbinfaru, a 48-villa property built on the footprint of an existing resort with the intention of preserving trees and preventing beach erosion.
There is no doubt that the Kilimanjaro ice cap is melting away—it’s the cause and the rate at which it’s melting that are uncertain. “One camp says it’s global warming but another says the temperatures at the Kilimanjaro glacier are never above freezing at the top,” says National Snow and Ice Data Center’s Richard Armstrong. Either way, don’t wait if you want to see the Kili the way Hemingway described it in The Snows of Kilimanjaro; since Papa penned his immortal story in 1936, the ice cap has shrunk by about 80 percent.
How to See It Now: On your ascent, help maintain weather equipment used by Kilimanjaro National Park employees to monitor the climate changes.
Jakarta meteorologist Armu Susandi predicts that this idyllic archipelago will lose 2,000 islands and 154,000 square miles of land—including 10 percent of Papua and 5 percent of both Java and Sumatra—by 2080. And Jakarta, built at the confluence of 13 low-lying rivers—and now with a greater population than New York—is no exception. Susandi estimates that by 2050, roughly a quarter of Jakarta will vanish, including the international airport.
How to See It Now: With its limited shore infrastructure, the best way to see little known islands such as Alor, Sangliat Dol, Maluku, and Komodo (home to the Komodo dragon) is on an expedition ship with a green bill of health. Luxury cruise operator Orion Expeditions was one of the first of its kind to be Green Globe certified.
“The Antarctic Peninsula has 40 percent less sea ice than it used to,” says University of Alabama’s Dr. James McClintock, adding that within 20 to 40 years it’s likely that no ice will form at all. While this might make it easier to set foot on the earth’s southernmost continent, it means there will be little to see in the way of wildlife. The ice serves as a nursery for krill, and if the krill population dips, so do the whale, Weddell seal, and Adélie penguin populations, all of which have already declined by a whopping 70 percent.
How to See It Now: New eco-ships such as Abercrombie & Kent’s Le Boreal are a low-impact way to explore this breathtaking wonderland.
In the high Alps in summer, you no longer see remnants of the previous winter’s snow cover, which must accumulate if a glacier is to grow. Sadly, it’s too late for the Rhône Glacier, which feeds the namesake river. “Tourists would walk out the door of their hotel and step straight into the Rhône Glacier’s colossal ice caves. Today, they have to walk a long way to reach it,” says Armstrong. The moral of the story? Plan to visit picture-postcard lake and river cities such as Geneva before the Rhône dries up.
How to See It Now: Take Switzerland’s integrated train, biking, canoe, and hiking network, SwitzerlandMobility, a new system integrating transport, trails, guides, and accommodation at all skill levels—not only will it let you fully explore the Alps, but you’ll also keep carbon emissions to a minimum.
The largest of its kind, the Sundarbans Mangroves is a 4,000-square-mile maze of wetlands at the confluence of the Ganges, Brahmaputra, and Meghna rivers bordering Bangladesh and India. It’s also home to the rare Indian tiger, oddities such as the tree-climbing fish, and more than two million people. Logging, overfishing, and silt from the deforestation of the Himalayas are all choking it to death. UNESCO estimates that by the end of the 21st century, 75 percent will be gone.
How to See It Now: Support local businesses that engage in conservation efforts, like Sundarbans Jungle Camp in West Bengal.
The Dead Sea
Located on the border between Jordan and Israel, the Dead Sea is fast living up to its name. According to Gidon Bromberg, Israeli director of EcoPeace/Friends of the Earth Middle East, the Dead Sea has dropped 80 feet and lost a third of its surface area over the last 40 years. The cause is twofold: Israel, Jordan, and Syria are diverting the water into agricultural and domestic water consumption, and the rest is plundered by the mineral extraction industry. As a result, seaside hotels built in the 1980s are now stranded almost a mile from the water’s edge.
How to See It Now: To visit responsibly (and alongside expert guides who know how to avoid dangerous sinkholes), join Bromberg’s Neighbor’s Path Tours.
The Arctic Ice Shelf
Louise Allard, the first Australian woman to make it to the North Pole, in 2006, recalls many perilous fissures of open water and dangerously thin ice along her journey and jokes that if she had waited a few years she could have been the first woman to water-ski to the North Pole. NASA climate scientist Tom Wagner estimates that the Arctic will be ice free in the coming decades—and Arctic nations are banking on it, with people building warm-water ports and oil companies preparing for exploration. There’s even talk about using it as a transportation route.
How to See It Now: Forgo the helicopter shuttle to True North and embark on a nine-day cross-country ski expedition with Icetrek Expeditions.