In this article:
- The Seven Wonders of the World aren’t the only natural wonders we risk losing to climate change.
- Wildfires, rising sea levels, and pollution are threatening many beautiful and rare ecosystems.
- Some natural wonders have already been lost to climate change and exploitation.
We live on a planet full of stunning landscapes and unique wildlife. You don’t have to go far from home to experience the beauty that the Earth has to offer. If you know what you’re looking for, you can find migratory birds flying past your apartment building, medicinal plants growing out of sidewalks, and a tiny world of bugs and bacteria under your feet and in your body.
These aren’t the natural wonders that we worry about losing to climate change, though. When we think of climate change, we think of pollution in the Great Barrier Reef or melting icecaps in the North Pole.
It’s always something big, thanks in part to the Seven Wonders of the World. It may have not been its creators’ intention to, but the spotlight that the Seven Wonders get now means that they’re usually the only ones that get talked about.
But there are other places in the world that are just as beautiful, if not as popular, and just as worthy of being protected. Why pay attention to them? Because if we don’t, they might disappear like the natural wonders we’ve already lost.
Natural Wonders We’re Losing to Climate Change
Drought Threatens the Delicate Ecosystem of Madagascar
Madagascar is a small island nation on the southeastern coast of Africa whose presence in many people’s minds boils down to the Penguins of Madagascar franchise which makes sense because there really are penguins in Madagascar. Yes, penguins exist that far south.
The country has a rich biodiversity that serves as the only home for over 11,000 endemic plant species and about 150,000 endemic animal species. The flora and fauna of Madagascar vary so much from that of the mainland African continent that 89% of its species are endemic.
Among these is the famous Baobab tree which you can see in the background of the picture above. It’s the tall, smooth-barked ones.
Lovely as it is, the uniqueness of Madagascar’s ecosystem means that it’s highly sensitive to changes in its environmental conditions. Climate change continues to cause severe drought in Madagascar, destroying the natural rhythm of life on the island.
Though it should have a dry season from around May to October and a rainy season by November, climate change has made the rainy season more of a suggestion than a part of the seasonal cycle. In areas with the least precipitation, even cacti are dying from lack of water.
Coral Bleaching Wrecks Havoc on the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef
The Mesoamerican Barrier Reef is the non-showbiz cousin to the Great Barrier Reef. To be honest, I had never heard of it before I researched this topic which may be due to my own ignorance but could also be proof of how little publicity it gets. It’s not as well-known as its popular cousin, but the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef is no less great.
The reef can be found on the coasts of Central America, stretching from Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula all the way down to the Bay Islands that sit north of Honduras. At nearly 1,000 km or 625 miles long, the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef is second only to the Great Barrier Reef in size.
It serves as a home for over 500 species of fish as well as hundreds of other forms of marine life. Most critically, the reef supports endangered species by hosting some of the largest populations of manatees and whale sharks.
Unfortunately, climate change is causing all kinds of massive changes to the waters that the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef is in. The reef has to contend with rising sea levels, rapidly changing water pH, stronger storms, and warmer water. High water temperature makes corals expel the algae in their tissues, turning them white hence the name “coral bleaching.” Once a coral is bleached, it takes little to kill it and when it dies, it takes the many species that depend on it with it, collapsing an entire ecosystem.
The Pantanal, the World’s Largest Tropical Wetland, Is Heating Up
Spanning more than 42 million acres, the Pantanal is the largest tropical wetland in the world. A wetland, in case you’re wondering, is a biome where water is present for most of the year during the growing season.
Wetlands tend to vary depending on their location, soil conditions, and the amount of water they get. Generally, though, they’re cradles for life because of their favorable conditions. That’s why you’ll find so many cities, like Venice and London, built on wetlands.
The Pantanal, thanks to its size, still has a lot of open space for local wildlife to thrive in. It supports 4,700 plant and animal species in Bolivia, Brazil, and Paraguay. It also provides for millions of people living in and around the Pantanal.
The massive wetland area is home to several farms and is a tourist attraction, meaning that it rakes in millions of dollars for its inhabitants. This is without quantifying the value of the floodwater regulation that the Pantanal naturally does.
Despite the value it gives, the Pantanal is still under threat of pollution, unsustainable development, and rising temperatures. In 2020, 700,000 hectares of the Pantanal were lost to wildfires. With the way things are going, it’s possible for the Pantanal to burn again this year. When that happens, it will destabilize the ecosystem of the Rio de la Plata river basin.
Rising Sea Levels Are Pushing Salt Water Into the Everglades
Florida’s Everglade National Park is nowhere near as big as the Pantanal, but its 1.5 million acres of wetland are still home to hundreds of plant species and endangered or vulnerable fauna such as the Florida panther, West Indian manatee, and leatherback turtles.
The Everglades have it a bit better than other natural wonders. Not only is it a World Heritage Site, but it’s somewhat protected by the Cartagena Treaty and its status as a National Park. That said, environmental changes that happen outside of the Everglades find their way into the heart of the wetlands.
You see, the Everglades is a freshwater wetland meaning that the life it currently sustains hinges on the water conditions of the Everglades staying that way. Rising sea levels, though, have a different idea.
The “small” annual rise of 2.2 centimeters of global sea levels is pushing saltwater up into the Everglades, tampering with the freshwater further inland. The influx of seawater also means that soil conditions in the Everglades are changing, much to the detriment of its plant life. When the plants go, the animals do, too.
The Biblical Cedar Forests of Lebanon Are Nearly Gone
Lebanon is a nation in the Middle East that’s sandwiched between the Mediterranean Sea, Israel, and Syria. Like many of its neighboring countries, Lebanon is ancient enough to be attested to in the Bible. But if you look at the verses that mention Lebanon, the country may as well be a synonym for the cedar trees it’s famed for.
“He spoke of trees, from the cedar that is in Lebanon even to the hyssop that grows on the wall; he spoke also of animals and birds and creeping things and fish.” – 1 Kings 4:33
“The righteous man will flourish like the palm tree. He will grow like a cedar in Lebanon.” – Psalm 92:12
“Even the cypress trees rejoice over you, and the cedars of Lebanon, saying, ‘Since you were laid low, no tree cutter comes up against us.’” – Isaiah 14:8
Soon, Bible verses may be all we have left of the legendary cedar trees of Lebanon. The trees managed to survive millennia of being turned into sarcophagi and the merchant ships that made the Phoenicians a sea-trading people. But wildfires, it seems, are going to be the threat that wipes it out entirely.
Rising temperatures in the Middle East have led to longer, hotter heatwaves that grow stronger than the cedars can hope to match. By the end of the 21st century, climate scientists predict that annual temperatures in the region will increase by up to 39.2 degrees Fahrenheit. But it may not need to take so long.
According to George Mitri, the director of the Lebanese University of Balamand’s land and natural resources program, 2020 was the worst fire season they’ve had on record. In October, he and his team found 150 separate wildfires over a span of 48 hours. The incident came close to reaching Lebanon’s Tannourine Nature Reserve where the cedars remain (almost) as thick as they did in Biblical times.
Natural Wonders We’ve Already Lost to Climate Change
The Chacaltaya Glacier of Bolivia Has Melted Away
In its heyday, the Chacaltaya Glacier was the world’s highest ski resort. Situated in Bolivia, it commanded a view of the surrounding Andes mountain range at 17,634 feet above sea level.
Imagine how cozy and fun it would have been to be one of the upper-middle class tourists that visited on the weekends, sipping hot cocoa in an Instagram-perfect log cabin. All around you is gleaming white, both from the glacier stretching over the resort grounds and the clouds blanketing the Andes.
Now imagine it gone. Just wet, brownish-gray earth with only small tracts of ice in the distance, not one of them enough for the skiing lessons you could have taken there a few decades ago.
Where the Chacaltaya Glacier has disappeared sit dozens of stone and log buildings that were once skiing stations, restaurants, cafes, and inns.
All of them are abandoned, except for one lonely ski station where Adolfo and Samuel Mendoza, avid skiers when skiing was still possible on the mountain, wait for tourists that will never come.
It Took the Aral Sea Just a Few Decades to Disappear
The Aral Sea wasn’t really a sea. In truth, it was an endorheic lake, a body of water where the water ends up and has nowhere else to flow out of. Over millions of years, like how a drop of water fills a bucket, the Aral Sea formed between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.
When it still existed, it was the fourth-largest lake in the world and covered 26,000 square miles. But in the 1960s, the Soviet Union began a series of faulty irrigation projects that choked the flow of water from the mighty Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers that fed into the Aral Sea.
Soon, the Aral Sea showed signs of its starvation, splitting into a handful of small lakes that were only a tenth of what it once was. Less water also meant that the Aral Sea, or rather, what remained of it, couldn’t keep up with evaporation.
The lake grew saltier, killing millions of fish and the wallets of the coastal towns that depended on the Aral Sea. Though there are efforts to bring the Aral Sea back to life, climate change has melted away many of the mountain snowcaps that helped sustain it in decades past, making the “Sea of Islands” little more than a distant memory.
At the rate we’re pushing the Earth to its limits, who knows? Maybe all of it, and us, will be distant memories.