Melting World Heritage

One of the Swiss World Heritage sites is melting!

Switzerland has 11 properties inscribed under the UNESCO World Heritage Convention, three of which are natural sites. One of these is the complex of Jungfrau – Aletsch in central Switzerland.  The description of the site states that it provides an outstanding example of the formation of the High Alps. The site includes the famous Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau mountains and the largest glacier in Eurasia, the Great Aletsch Glacier.

Great Aletsch Glacier © Pro Natura Center Aletsch

Great Aletsch Glacier © Pro Natura Center Aletsch

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is currently discussing its latest report, and we expect them to state that most of the warming of the Earth’s surface since the 1950s is “extremely likely” — at least 95% probable — to be man-made.  One of the results of global warming is the melting of ice caps.

The Swiss Federal Office for the Environment measures a number of environmental indicators, and glacial retreat is one of them. The following graph shows how the Aletsch Glacier is reducing in size, and it also shows that the rate of retreat is accelerating.

Cumulative length change of Aletsch Glacier in metres.  Source: Swiss Glacier Monitoring Network

Cumulative length change of Aletsch Glacier in metres. Source: Swiss Glacier Monitoring Network

According to Pro Natura Switzerland, the glacier is currently retreating at a rate of a good 50 meters (164 feet) per year.

I recently went to have a look myself.   The sight of the glacier is truly a jaw-dropping experience. Photos cannot really do justice to the magnificence of the Aletsch Glacier, but here goes anyway.


You can see on the photo that the ice flow was higher in the past, so let us hope that the IPCC is also right in its assessment that there is a slowdown in the pace of warming. However, a report by Lord Stern a few days ago warns about the risk of under-estimating the effects of global warming, and he reckons that the IPCC is playing down the problem.

Global warming and glacial melt will be with us for many more years to come.


iucn          WWF2

It may not be front page news, but next year there will be a major shift in the management of two of the world’s largest environmental organisations.   What will this mean for future global nature conservation policy?

In 1980, the collaboration between the largest environmental NGO in the world (WWF International), the largest international network of organisations dealing with biodiversity and nature (IUCN) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) resulted in the publication of the World Conservation Strategy.  This was widely acclaimed as the blueprint for the concept of sustainable development.  The sequel, “Caring for the Earth – a strategy for sustainable living” was published by the same three organisations in 1993 as a response to the Rio Earth Summit.  From 1988 to 2000, IUCN, WWF and UNEP also managed jointly the World Conservation Monitoring Centre in Cambridge, the global biodiversity institute responsible for biodiversity assessments and policy advice, which is now part of UNEP.

During the past decade, collaboration between the three organisations has not been as productive as it was in the eighties and nineties.  Recent announcements may well herald a major change.  WWF has advertised the position of Director-General, as the incumbent Jim Leape is leaving in early 2014.  IUCN announced on its web-site last week that its Director-General Julia Marton-Lefèvre is also stepping down in 2014, and the process for her replacement has started.

What will this transition bring for the future?  Will IUCN and WWF get closer, or move further apart?   Can we expect some new joint action in the village of Gland in Switzerland where both IUCN and WWF have their Headquarters?  Could the economic crisis in Europe encourage a Secretariat shift towards the East or towards the South where UNEP is located already?  What about a new major IUCN-WWF-UNEP initiative to set the scene for the future?

Time will tell…..