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Glaciers from Yosemite to Kilimanjaro are predicted to disappear by 2050

Africa's last remaining glaciers, including on Mount Kilimanjaro, are expected to melt by 2050. The mountain is seen here in 2009.
Roberto Schmidt
AFP via Getty Images
Africa's last remaining glaciers, including on Mount Kilimanjaro, are expected to melt by 2050. The mountain is seen here in 2009.

Updated November 10, 2022 at 11:08 AM ET

In North America and around the globe, 50 UNESCO World Heritage sites are home to glaciers. A new study warns that glaciers in a third of them will disappear by 2050 due to carbon emissions warming the planet.

The other two-thirds can still be saved — but only if global temperatures don't exceed 1.5 degrees Celsius compared with pre-industrial times, UNESCO says.

World Heritage sites are places that have outstanding natural and cultural heritage, and that world leaders have thus agreed to protect.

UNESCO's report, released ahead of the COP27 climate conference starting Sunday in Egypt, is bracing.

About 18,600 glaciers are found in World Heritage sites, and they represent about a tenth of the glacierized area on Earth — but they are shrinking quickly. The glaciers in these 50 sites are losing some 58 billion tons of ice each year, and contribute to almost 5% of observed sea level rise globally.

The affected glaciers span the globe

The last remaining glaciers in Africa are predicted to melt by 2050, including those at Kilimanjaro National Park and Mount Kenya. The fastest melting glaciers on the list are those at Three Parallel Rivers National Park in China's Yunnan province. Glaciers there have already lost more than 57% of their mass since 2000.

In the U.S., the ice bodies or glaciers in Yellowstone and Yosemite National Parks will likely have disappeared by 2050. The glaciers found along the U.S.-Canadian border at the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park have already lost more than a quarter of their volume in the last 20 years.

Other endangered glaciers include those in Italy's Dolomites, France's Pyrenees, Argentina's Los Alerces National Park, Peru's Huascarán National Park, and New Zealand's Te Wahipounamu.

The melting glaciers will make water for millions more scarce

The melting glaciers have an impact not only on the environment, but on people, said Bruno Oberle, director-general of the International Union for Conservation of Nature in a statement released Thursday.

"When glaciers melt rapidly, millions of people face water scarcity and the increased risk of natural disasters such as flooding, and millions more may be displaced by the resulting rise in sea levels," Oberle said.

"This study highlights the urgent need to cut greenhouse gas emissions and invest in Nature-based Solutions, which can help mitigate climate change and allow people to better adapt to its impacts," he added.

As the world's climate leaders gather for COP27, UNESCO is calling for the creation of an international fund for glacier monitoring and preservation that would support research, strengthen ties between stakeholders, and implement disaster risk and early warning measures.

"This report is a call to action," UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay said in statement. "Only a rapid reduction in our CO2 emissions levels can save glaciers and the exceptional biodiversity that depends on them."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: November 9, 2022 at 11:00 PM CST
The report referenced looks at permanent snow or ice bodies, of which glaciers are a subset. As of the most recent data collection by the two databases used in the report, Yellowstone has several small ice bodies but does not have glaciers, which move.
Laurel Wamsley is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She reports breaking news for NPR's digital coverage, newscasts, and news magazines, as well as occasional features. She was also the lead reporter for NPR's coverage of the 2019 Women's World Cup in France.