Penguin with Antarctic Landscape
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Natural Wonders to Appreciate Before They're Gone

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Penguin with Antarctic Landscape
mike_matas/istockphoto

Disappearing Destinations

Glaciers are melting, the climate is warming, sea levels rising, and so many endangered species remain under threat. Our most ecologically sensitive areas continue to be vulnerable, and the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report on climate change science confirms what we’ve known for a while: It’s time to actively change our consumption habits and reduce the emissions of greenhouse gases if we want to enjoy our planet a little longer — and hopefully we’ll get the chance to visit a few of these stunning spots of natural beauty and wonder. Here are some of the world's most imperiled natural wonders to appreciate while we can.


Related: The Most-Visited Tourist Destinations of the Past Decade

Blue Hole
Michael Conlin/istockphoto

Belize Barrier Reef

Belize 

No surprise that the second-largest coral reef in the world is a natural wonder under threat. In 1998, it already suffered a severe bleaching incident with a loss of 50 percent of its coral in many areas, and losing its distinctive staghorn coral. “I worry about the Belize Barrier Reef. The 300-kilometer reef with its abundant biodiversity of marine animals makes this one of the most unique diving locations — the legendary Blue Hole is located there — in the world. It is said that over 90 percent of species living there remain unidentified, but unfortunately many are at risk due to man-made pollution, especially plastic,” says Torben Lonne of Divein.com. “The good news is Belize has progressed in its environmental conservation efforts, and last year on Earth Day, April 22, they committed to eliminating the use of non-reusable plastics such as straws, cutlery, and bags. The government has also stalled any off-shore drilling for oil in an effort to preserve the ecosystems around the reef. More than 1,000 different species of marine life are at risk, but the outlook is good for the future if the recent developments hold true.” 

 

Related: 18 Things You Must Do While Traveling Central America

Doñana national park
GeoJGomez/istockphoto

Doñana National Park

Spain

Few travelers realize that Europe's largest wetland is found in Spain. At Doñana National Park in Huelva, Southern Spain, millions of migratory birds stop at this rich biodiverse wetland en route between Europe and Africa. Home to different ecosystems including marshland, moving dunes, and 19 miles of unspoiled white beaches, it’s also a refuge for threatened species such as the Iberian Lynx and Spanish imperial eagle. “Despite its high degree of protection and rich biodiversity, the park has been threatened for decades by industrial projects, land use, invasive species, and climate change,” shares Rocío Haro of Alandis Travel. In 2016, following a global campaign by the World Wildlife Fund, the Spanish government announced a ban on the dredging of the biodiversity-rich wetlands of Guadalquivir River, removing (for now) the most immediate threat to Doñana National Park.

Insider Tip: Learn more about what the El Acebuche breeding center at the Doñana National Park is doing to move the Iberian Lynx off the endangered species list. In 2021, 11 of 23 new cubs have been born there. Currently, there are just 1,111 lynx in Spain and Portugal.

 

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The Rwenzori Mountains
guenterguni/istockphoto

The Rwenzori Mountains

Uganda

This range of mountains in eastern equatorial Africa between Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo is another victim of climate change. “The Rwenzori Mountains is one of just three places in Africa where you can find permanent glaciers. [However] In 2020, conservationist Klaus Thymann’s expedition confirmed that Mount Baker and Mount Speke no longer have glaciers,” says Marc Christensen of the travel company Brilliant Africa. “Thymann used comparative images to prove that two of Africa’s five glaciated peaks have been lost. Tragically, the present moment is your last chance to see Africa’s glaciers before they vanish forever. Mount Stanley’s glacier is the only remaining glacier in the Rwenzoris, and studies suggest that it may vanish by 2025.”

 

Related: World's Most Beautiful Glaciers to See Before They're Gone


Adelie Penguins Jumping from Iceberg
KeithSzafranski/istockphoto

Antarctica's Penguins

The beauty of Antarctica's icy conditions is a sight to behold but soon, it may look (and feel) rather different. Antarctic ice shelves have lost nearly 4 trillion metric tons of ice since the mid-1990s, and it’s not getting better. As a result, the wildlife has also been severely impacted. Research recently published in the journal Global Change Biology found that by 2100, 98 percent of emperor penguin colonies may be pushed to the brink of extinction. As their life cycle is tied to having stable sea ice, the steady loss of sea ice may see 70 percent of the population in danger by 2050. Less sea ice also affects krill, which creates a knock-on effect that impacts the populations of whales, sea lions, orcas, and seals. So, if one of your bucket-list travel wishes is to see emperor penguins doing dance-like movements in person, start making plans soon.     

 

Related: 21 Places to Safely See Wild Animals Up Close

The Maldives
Konstik/istockphoto

The Maldives

Republic of Maldives

Twenty to 50 years, that’s the time frame scientists are predicting for The Maldives to disappear. Situated in the middle of the Indian Ocean, the collection of 200 small islands and atolls may be famous for white sand beaches, rich coral reefs, and celebrity clientele, but it also has the lowest terrain of any country in the world, standing less than 1 meter above sea level. “Many scientists are predicting that climate change will cause flooding [to The Maldives] and that by 2100 the sea levels will render the islands there completely inhabitable,” says Randall "Mr. Beach" Kaplan, founder and CEO of the beach-information site Sandee. With the global sea level rising 3 to 4 millimeters per year, some of the lower-lying islands could become uninhabitable by 2050, according to NASA, which would impact endangered species like the leopard shark and the giant Napoleon wrasse fish. 


Related: 15 Bucket-List Destinations Below the Equator

Beach on Tuvalu island
mbrand85/istockphoto

Tuvalu

South Pacific 

Somewhere between Australia and Hawaii lies the small country of Tuvalu. Made up of nine islands that are just 10 square miles in size, this untouched paradise with stunning lagoons and coral reefs attracts only the most intrepid of travelers with approximately just 1,000 tourists visiting its sparkling azure waters each year. Climate change and rising sea levels — the highest point is only a few meters above sea level — are slowly but surely threatening its inhabitants. Two of Tuvalu’s nine islands are already on the verge of going under, and​​ scientists are predicting Tuvalu could become uninhabitable in as little as 50 years. If this happens, the people of Tuvalu could become the first documented climate change refugees in the world. 

 

Insider Tip: Learn more about the Kōtui campaign to support people in Tuvalu (and other countries like Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea, Timor-Leste) where Oxfam will be raising $2.7 million through public donations.

Aerial View of Florida Everglades
Robert DelVecchio - OcuDrone/istockphoto

The Everglades

Florida

This national treasure is worth going down South for, but you better do it quickly because it’s shrinking. While there’s been a 30-year restoration effort since 2000, this “River of Grass'' is not yet out of the woods. While it’s roughly the size of New Jersey, its 1.5 million acre mass is half of what it used to be. The result of human interference impacting its water quality and ongoing climate change, this birder’s paradise is also home to the manatee, elusive Florida panther and American crocodile, nine distinct climates (sawgrass, mangroves, pine savannas), and most recently, the Pine Rockland Trapdoor Spider was spotted, a rare sighting since it was last seen in the 1920s


Related: Best National Parks to Visit in Winter

Grinnell Glacier in Glacier National Park
Dean_Fikar /istockphoto

Glacier National Park

Montana

The rugged wilderness of Glacier National Park may be glacier-free by 2030 due to warmer summer weather and changes in snowfall. While it’s not news that the active glaciers have been decreasing, in 1900 there were 150 glaciers in the park, now there are just 25. In November 2019, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service added the western glacier stonefly (Zapada glacier) and the meltwater lednian stonefly (Lednia tumana) to the Endangered Species List, according to an article by the Natural Resources Defense Council. If you’ve always had plans to see the park's glaciers and explore the Going-to-the-Sun Road or raft down the Flathead River, doing it sooner versus later would seem to be the right move.   

 

Related: Breathtaking Roads That Are Only Open Part of the Year

Aerial View of Franz Josef Glacier, New Zealand
Matt Palmer/istockphoto

Franz Josef and Fox Glacier

New Zealand

Here today, possibly gone tomorrow. New Zealand’s marine glaciers are noticeably changing their mass year to year and have been on the decline for the past two decades. According to an article by The Guardian, the Franz Josef glacier “has been retreating rapidly and lost a massive 1.56km in length, at the fastest rate ever recorded.” Fox Glacier is facing the same fate, and since 2019, its access road was closed due to repeated flooding and a massive landslide and is now only accessible by helicopter. “Having hiked Fox glacier in 2006, it was a phenomenal piece of natural New Zealand landscape. They are now saying the glacier has been receding for the past 13 years. Having lost 900 meters in just the past decade,” says Joel Speyers of Prep4Travel

 

Insider Tip: Watch a time-lapse video of the Franz Josef glacier retreating here.

White Cliffs of Dover on a clear sunny day
asmithers/istockphoto

White Cliffs of Dover

United Kingdom

Pretty as a picture, the iconic white cliffs of Dover aren’t just an iconic sight to behold; for the English, it represents where home begins and ends. Made of white chalk formed from the shells of a rare species of algae, the cliffs have always been vulnerable, but bad weather, storm waves, reduced sediment supply, and beach erosion has culminated into it eroding 10 times faster in the last 150 years than they did over the previous 7,000 years according to a 2016 report. Need further proof that it is disappearing? In February 2021, this viral video captured a chunk of it falling into the water.

The Dead Sea
vvvita / istockphoto

The Dead Sea

Israel 

If you’ve got your heart set on snapping that photo perfectly buoyant in the Dead Sea, best to get a move on it. The dense, mineral-rich waters are, for now, still around, but it is disappearing thanks to excessive mineral mining (Dead Sea mud mask anyone?) and water scarcity issues. A new report estimates that the water level is sinking about 1 meter per year, while the land is sinking about 15 centimeters per year. This has resulted in numerous sinkholes, some resorts having to shut and experts estimate that it may not be around by 2050. While there’s the proposed solution of the Red Dead Canal where water will be channeled from the Red Sea, this move could trigger seismic activity in the region, which could add another layer of stress to an already vulnerable environment. 


Wedding Cake Rock, The Royal National Park, New South Wales
S.Rohrlach/istockphoto

Wedding Cake Rock

Australia

Sorry TikTok influencers but you’re no longer going to be able to film yourself busting out handstands at the edge of Wedding Cake Rock. Located an hour from Bundeena in New South Wales, the rock’s unusual pale hue is caused by iron leaching and has been fenced off in recent years to prevent anyone standing on or along the cliff edges. Its sandstone layers have been deemed “dangerously soft” and are at risk of collapsing, evident by its vertical fractures. While you can admire it only from a distance, the coastal walk around the Royal National Park is still a scenic one dotted with other spectacular rock formations and the odd whale sighting. 


Insider Tip: Walk further from Wedding Cake Rock for a stunning view of Marley Beach and Little Marley Beach, and bring your bathing suit, it’s worth a dip on a warm sunny day. 

 

Related: 20 Fascinating Places Where Tourists Aren't Welcome

Mount Fuji
mantaphoto/istockphoto

Mount Fuji

Japan
If there’s one sight you must see when visiting Japan, it has to be Mount Fuji. However, this view of its white-capped peak may not be the case for much longer. “Unfortunately Fuji's snowfall has been decreasing the past 8-10 years. The iconic snow-covered volcano will soon enough be a regular-looking volcano with no snow-capped peak,” says Joel Speyers of Prep4Travel. According to NASA, the Normalized Difference Snow Index (NDSI) observations from the Terra satellite indicate that December 2020 snow cover on Mount Fuji was among the lowest in the satellite’s 20-year record, and its iconic snow cap was much smaller, or even absent in 2020.

Insider Tip: You don’t need to hike Mount Fuji to admire its exceptionally symmetrical cone. The peak can be seen from multiple viewpoints: from a Shinkansen bullet-train seat traveling from Tokyo to Osaka, the viewing deck of Tokyo Tower, or even when seated and flying over Japan. 

 

Related: The World's Most Beautiful Volcanoes

Mokulua Islands as seen from Lanikai Beach in Oahu, Hawaii
PB57photos/istockphoto

Lanikai Beach

Hawaii 

This famed stretch of beach on the Windward Coast of Oahu is no stranger to accolades. Named the best beach in the world many times over, it’s an honor that may soon become a forgotten memory. The ongoing issue of manmade seawalls and sandbag walls is significantly contributing to Oahu’s overall coastal erosion, and a study done by ProPublica shows the south half of the beach is no longer walkable and much of the remaining shoreline eroded. Overall, it’s estimated that Oahu has lost about one-quarter of its beaches to shoreline hardening, and scientists warn that figure could rise to 40 percent by 2050.

 

Related: The Best of Hawaii on a Budget

African Forest Elephants
USO/istockphoto

The Congo Basin

Africa 

Climate change isn’t the only threat to the green treasure that is the Congo Basin. The world’s second-largest rainforest is also feeling the effects of the growing demand for timber, which has resulted in the forests of Gabon and Cameroon being intensely logged. This, and ongoing issues surrounding illegal oil drilling and deforestation, could see up to two-thirds of the forest and its unique plants (it contains over 10,000 tropical plant species) and wildlife (bonobos, mountain gorillas, forest elephants) lost by 2040 unless impactful steps are taken to protect it now. Globally, the loss of the Congo Basin also plays a crucial role in the absorption of carbon dioxide — its trees soak up some 1.2 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide each year — and the production of oxygen, which would only serve to accelerate the rate of climate change.

View to pitcher plant of Nepenthes,Atsinanana region, Madagascar
HomoCosmicos/istockphoto

The Atsinanana Rainforest

Madagascar 

Located in eastern Madagascar, this World Heritage Site consistently tops many traveler’s must-visit lists. And no wonder, the six national parks located along the nearly 1,000-mile length of eastern Madagascar are home to many rare species like 25 different lemurs, 50 species of reptiles, and 100 endemic species of freshwater fish, many of which are severely threatened. “Such a rich, biodiverse landmass has attracted negative attention which has endangered its natural environment,” says Aman Saxena of Trip101. “Unfortunately, poaching and illegal logging in the area caused the Rainforests of Atsinanana to be placed on the UNESCO ‘in danger’ list last 2010. Other factors such as agricultural encroachment, livestock grazing, mining, quarrying, infrastructure development, and the dreadful climate change have also helped to maintain the rainforests’ spot in the [not preferred] list.”

Sundarbans Mangroves
Suprabhat Dutta/istockphoto

Sundarbans Mangroves

India and Bangladesh

Stretching 3,800 square miles across India and Bangladesh, this cluster of low-lying islands in the Bay of Bengal is famous for its unique mangrove forest. One of the largest in the world, it’s home to the rare Bengal tigers, saltwater crocodiles, chital deer, and Ganges river dolphins. Unfortunately, ongoing pollution, deforestation, and overfishing are causing its coastlines to erode and killing off its mangroves. UNESCO estimates that if there is a 45-centimeter (17.7-inch) rise in sea level, 75 percent of the Sundarbans mangroves will be lost, and with it the many animal, plant, and human lives that depend on it.

Insider Tip: Visiting the Sundarbans National Park can only be accessed by boat, and permits are required. Don’t go expecting to spot a Bengal tiger (they’re usually roaming within the park's tiger reserve which is not open to tourists) but to appreciate its raw, pristine beauty, and very likely some crocodile sightings.

The Great Barrier Reef
mevans/istockphoto

Great Barrier Reef

Australia 

For now, the legendary 1,200-mile Great Barrier Reef has sidestepped being designated as an “in danger” site by UNESCO, however, there’s little doubt that it is under threat. Home to more than 1,625 species of fish, 133 varieties of sharks and rays, and 600 species of soft and hard corals, rising ocean temperatures have severely impacted the reef, which the Australian government deemed in “very poor” condition in 2019. “The effects of climate change on well-known reefs and snorkeling spots have been devastating and are escalating at an alarming speed. The most well-known is the Great Barrier Reef on the northern coast of Australia. Its reef system is huge and includes nearly 3,000 individual reefs that stretch over 900 islands, and it’s been dying at a very rapid pace as a result of climate-induced factors. In recent years, it’s suffered a nearly 90 percent decrease in new coral,” says Kaplan, founder and CEO of Sandee.

Mount Kilimanjaro and Acacia in the morning
1001slide/istockphoto

Mount Kilimanjaro

Tanzania

This legendary peak may be a mountaineer's ultimate dream challenge, but thanks to warming temperatures, its ice cap has slowly melted, making it impossible to scale. In 2020, the world-famous ice climber Will Gadd decided not to attempt a planned ascent of Mount Kilimanjaro due to the extensive shrinking of its glaciers. Instead, he ended up making a 45-minute adventure documentary, "The Last Ascent," about what’s causing the big melt. While Kilimanjaro's World Heritage status is still classified as “Good With Some Concerns,” it is expected that the glaciers will disappear altogether from Kilimanjaro within a couple of decades.

The Amazon Rainforest
gustavofrazao/istockphoto

The Amazon Rainforest

Brazil 

In 2019, the world was shocked by images of the Amazon Rainforest on fire where approximately 3,800 square miles of forest burned. Sadly, in 2020, it burned again, and this time, according to an analysis of satellite data from NASA’s Amazon dashboard, the fires were more severe. Even after decades of conservation, the largest tropical rainforest on Earth that spreads from Brazil to Peru to Ecuador and Venezuela is estimated to disappear in 50 years thanks to unrelenting demands for beef, soybean and timber. As a producer of 20 percent of the world’s oxygen and home to roughly 20 percent of the world’s bird species and a wide array of fish and animals, unfortunately, its place in the world as a carbon sink has also now reversed — it is now emitting more carbon dioxide than it can absorb.

Sailing on the Yangtze River
manx_in_the_world/istockphoto

Yangtze River

China 
Taking a river cruise down Asia’s biggest river might be the best way to explore it. The third-longest river in the world (3,915 miles) is also one of the most fertile and supports half of China’s wild animal and plant species. Home to giant pandas, Siberian cranes, and porpoises, sadly, the combination of a densely populated area and heavily industrialized cities is causing irreparable flooding and habitat destruction to the area, polluting its waters and affecting the water supply of millions. However, with a new law passed pledging China’s efforts to meet its commitment under the Paris Agreement, the country is now amping up greening and decarbonizing economic activity to reach peak carbon by 2030 and carbon neutrality by 2060. 


Related: Everything You Need to Know About Taking a Cruise Right Now

Polar bear on pack ice
SeppFriedhuber/istockphoto

Arctic Polar Bears

If your only encounter with a polar bear has been behind plexiglass in a zoo setting, this might become a permanent reality. Like the Antarctic, worsening climate conditions are posing a threat to the delicate ecosystem of the Arctic, and one added victim of the melting ice is the polar bear. “Scientists say that climate change threatens many animals in the Arctic with complete extinction. Polar bears are in the greatest danger since when the area of sea ice decreases, they are forced to move to the coast, to smaller food supply,” world-famous explorer Fyodor Konyukhov told The Siberian Times.

Ngozumba glacier, the largest glacier in great Himalayan range
DanielPrudek/istockphoto

Himalayan Glaciers

India

There’s no fudging it, global warming is causing the Himalayan glaciers to melt at a rate that has doubled since the start of the 21st century. According to a report by the BBC, “the retreating glaciers in the Himalayas are not only dangerously filling up glacial lakes but they are also causing other hazards that are not being monitored.” With the loss of over a vertical foot and half of the ice each year, this is threatening the water supply of millions and destroying the habitat for endangered species like the snow leopard. Until the conditions around this natural wonder are vastly improved, a virtual travel experience might be the best way to experience it.

Joshua Tree National Park
KiskaMedia/istockphoto

Joshua Tree National Park

California 
What would Joshua Tree National Park look like without its distinctive, unusual-shaped Joshua trees? If climate change continues, this iconic tree that has graced the Mojave Desert for 2.5 million years may be on its way out. On September 22, 2020, the California Fish and Game Commission unanimously voted to grant the western Joshua trees Temporary Endangered Species Protection, making it illegal to cut down, damage, or remove a Joshua tree without a permit or special permission for a year or so. While this will buy some time to help the younger trees become established, ultimately, the Joshua Tree remains at the mercy of hotter, drier weather conditions and an ongoing development boom.

Related: Stunning Photos of Every National Park in America

Lake Taal landscape and mount Binintiang Malaki, Luzon Philippines
gionnixxx/istockphoto

Taal Volcano

The Philippines 

Size matters, and even though Taal Volcano is one of the world's smallest volcanoes at 1,020 feet, it has erupted 34 times in the past 450 years, the most recent being in January 2020. While this popular tourist spot currently remains closed off to tourism due to emissions of high levels of sulfur dioxide also known as “vog.” The Philippines' second-most-active volcano has always been a popular tourism spot for its picturesque setting in the middle of Taal Lake and proximity to Manila and the beaches of Batangas but it’s likely to be off limits for a while. “Recent volcanic eruptions in Taal Volcano caused not only the loss of several lives but also the destruction of Taal’s flora and fauna [like the Taal Lake snake (Hydrophis semperi) and Tawilis fish] and their natural habitats. The eruptions severely damaged the surrounding agricultural lands and contaminated the waters of the lake, making this natural wonder in danger of disappearing,” says Aman Saxena of Trip101.