Melting Cultural Heritage in the High North

The icefjord in Ilulissat, Greenland. (Credit: Greenland Travel)
As climate change redefines environments across the globe, humanity’s most iconic World Heritage Sites are in danger of being lost forever. And Greenland’s Ilulissat Icefjord is "ground zero."

As climate change redefines environments across the globe, humanity’s most iconic World Heritage Sites are in danger of being lost forever. And Greenland’s Ilulissat Icefjord is "ground zero."

Increased flooding and sea level rise are inundating Venice’s remarkable St. Marks Square and Cathedral. Changes to the El Niña Southern Oscillation are jeopardizing many of the unique plant and animal species that call the Galapagos Islands home. And the Statue of Liberty, a beacon of new opportunity for millions of immigrants to America, faces an uncertain future as extreme weather events like Hurricane Sandy pound against her copper armoring.

While the Arctic is absent of large ladies of liberty or renaissance churches, circumpolar heritage sites are also on the front lines of climate change. A new report, World Heritage and Tourism in a Changing Climate, features the Ilulissat Icefjord in Greenland as one of 31 World Heritage properties to showcase the consequences of climate change on places humanity holds most dear.

Published by the United Nations Environment Programme, the United Nations Education, Scientific and cultural Organization (UNESCO), and the Union of Concerned Scientists, it offers vulnerability analyses and policy recommendations for 31 case studies chosen from more than 1,000 World Heritage properties in 163 countries.

An Arctic Heritage Site for All Mankind

The Ilulissat Icefjord in Greenland is the only Arctic property to make it into the report. The Icefjord was declared a World Heritage site in 2004 for its "unique, wild and scenic landscape, global importance as a geological feature, and its role in scientific understanding of the last ice age and ice sheet dynamics" according to the report. It acts as the main outlet to the sea for Greenland’s inland ice, draining 6.5 percent of the Greenland ice sheet and generating 10 percent of its icebergs.

The visual and aural beauty of the Sermeq Kujalleq (the Jakobshavn Glacier) meeting the sea in Disko Bay is unrivalled - impossible blues combine with resounding cracks of ice calving into the ocean below to create an aesthetic experience akin to 19th Century Romantic paintings of idyllic landscapes.

But this cultural heritage site is shrinking at an alarming rate.

When Fast Glaciers Move Too Fast

Higher ocean temperatures, the loss of its floating ice tongue, the penetration of surface melt water to the base of the glacier, the wider and deeper geology at the current terminus of the glacier, or a combination of all these have dramatically increased the rate of glacial flow into the ocean. Between 1850 and 2010, the Glacier retreated 40 kilometres. And it’s only poised to get worse. Over 2012, the speed of the Glacier reached 17 kilometers, three times the annual rate of the 1990s.

Climate models suggest that the Greenland ice sheet could melt within the next millennium, potentially triggering a sea level rise of many meters this century. Combined, the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets hold enough water to raise global sea levels by 65 meters if they melt completely. But beyond its implications for global sea level rise, melting ice in Greenland also has a devastating local impact on prehistoric archeological sites.

A Past Poised to be Lost

The Qajaa site, an area around the Ilulissat Icefjord, is home to one of the best preserved sites for palaeo-Eskimo cultures where Dorset, Saqqaq, and Thule people lived for millennium. Wood, bone, and animal artifacts, preserved for more than 4000 years in the permafrost, provide vital clues to what everyday life was life for Greenland’s earliest settlers – and how they effectively adapted to a changing environment.
But these clues to humanity’s past could be lost forever within 80 to 100 years.

As permafrost thaws, these organic artifacts face an accelerating rate of decay. Thawing permafrost is not only caused by rising atmospheric temperatures, but also the heat generated by bacteria actively decomposing organic deposits within the frozen ground itself. This positive feedback cycle can speed up the deterioration of critical archeological sites of early inhabitants – in addition to increasing the release of carbon into the atmosphere.

Resurrecting Extictionist Tourism

The original World Heritage and Tourism in a Changing Climate report included a 32nd case study – the Great Barrier Reef off the coast of Australia. The ecosystem is home to more than 2,900 individual reefs and some of the most important marine wildlife in the world. In 2015-2016, high temperatures and ocean acidification led to the most severe coral reef bleaching episode ever recorded, affecting more than 90 percent of the reef.

Despite the devastating damage done to this World Heritage Site, the case study was pulled from the report at the request of the Australian Government so accounts of the reef damage would not adversely affect tourism. It was published simultaneously on the blog of the Union of Concerned Scientists by one of the report’s authors, deputy director Adam Markham, stating that "UCS believes that we need to have these important conversations publicly, which is why we published the case study on our blog on the same time the report was released internationally."

In Greenland, climate change doesn’t damage tourism. It brings more of it.

Vanishing glaciers and lost cultures of the past have given rise to last-chance destination tourism in Greenland. Roughly 60,000 people visit Ilulissat each year, half of them arriving on cruise ships. From 2003 to 2008, the number of cruise ships to visit Greenland jumped from a mere 13 to 39, and that number has continued to increase.

The government of Greenland has capitalized on this economic opportunity. On its website, it invites visitors to visit the Ilulissat Icefjord to "be active in the climate change conversation here at ‘ground zero’ and to let your experiences in Greenland inspire your life back home."

But as many Arctic states develop climate change tourism for economic returns a question lingers – do experiences of the visuals of Arctic climate change outweigh the carbon footprint of a cruise liner tourist?