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Last year, global carbon emissions hit a record high, and the latest science tells us that we're almost certainly locked into roughly 2 degrees Celsius (or 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) of warming. It might not sound like much, but 2 degrees Celsius will redraw maps, change landscapes, and force cities to deploy aggressive adaptation measures.
A new book by Abrams Books, 100 Places to Go Before They Disappear, uses stunning photography to show us all exactly what's at stake. The project started as an installation of large-scale photographs that were displayed in a Copenhagen plaza during COP15, the disappointing international climate meeting in 2009. (The exhibition is in Toronto right now, and will be moving around North America.)
Actually going to these places—flying around the globe, spewing greenhouse gases all the while—would, of course, exacerbate the problem in a small way. But this isn't a travel book. It's more of an educational project, providing a vivid picture of what we actually have to lose.
In his foreword, Dr. Rajendra K. Pachauri, the chairman of the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, writes that climate change "is already happening" and that the effects will be clear to all. "By bringing this to the the attention of the public and highlighting 100 places that the world holds dear," Pachauri writes, "this whole project is turning attention to something that hopefully will bring about decisions that might actually protect these beautiful, valuable and precious places on the Earth."
The book includes some "places" that may seem obvious, and some that might come as quite a surprise. Yes, there are Arctic landscapes and sinking South Pacific islands. But there are also major American cities and massive pieces of modern infrastructure. What follows are ten of the places that I found most striking. Preserving them is a big reason that I stay committed to combating climate change.
Special thanks to Abrams Books and Getty Images, Ltd. for allowing us to use these images.
On Greece's Peloponnese Peninsula lies the valley of Olympia. It's home to incredible ancient ruins and is believed to have hosted the first Olympic Games in 776 B.C. In recent years, increasingly warm and dry summers have caused intense wildfires, devastating surrounding areas. As temperatures continue to increase, the fires will no doubt continue, and it's only a matter of time before Olympia itself is scorched.
The Mississippi River Delta
Sea level rise is compromising this rich delta, which is of massive importance to the U.S. economy. It provides a "buffer zone" that protects the densely populated areas in Louisiana and Mississippi, it hosts the country's main shipping channel, it's the second most productive fishery, and it produces over 15 percent of the nation's oil.
Zahara de la Sierra, Andalusia, Spain
Andalusia is famous for its fertile green pastures and productive olive orchards, which drive the region's economy. Annual rainfall in the Iberian Peninsula, home to Andalusia, is expected to fall by up to 40 percent by the end of the century, a fate that would lay ruin to the local orchards.
The highest point of this nine-island nation is a mere 16 feet above sea level. The rising waters, rising sea temperatures, and ocean acidification are all combining to issue a death sentence for the tiny nation.
The Battery, New York City
No need to emphasize the importance—economic, social, cultural—of downtown Manhattan. But it's worth noting how much of lower Manhattan is below 10 feet of elevation, including much of the Financial District visible above. Historically, the area has seen floods of up to 10 feet every 100 years, but current projections anticipate regular extreme flooding of roughly 11 to 14 feet every four years by the year 2080.
Kitzbühel, Tyrol, Austria
Europe's "winter playground" hosts tens of millions of tourists every year from December through April. But the alpine glaciers are now retreating, high elevation permafrost is melting, and generally warmer weather is destabilizing once reliable skiing areas, causing avalanches and rock slides. Ski resorts have recently taken to covering glaciers with white, reflective blankets every summer to slow the retreat of the crucial natural resource.
Niger Delta, Nigeria
The Niger Delta is the "delicate home to 25 million people," many of whom are migrant workers in the oil industry, and the rest of whom are locals who depend on subsistence agriculture and fishing.
Current projections anticipate consistent and extreme flooding in the delta. The intrusion of seawater into the freshwater delta is also threatening the entire ecosystem, destroying the mangrove forests and severely harming local agriculture and fisheries.
Venice, spread over 118 small islands in a marshy lagoon, was already sinking on its own over the centuries, before climate change's impacts were even felt. Now they're getting serious about dykes, levees, and floodgates.
Yangtze River, China
The longest river in Asia, called by some the "Golden Gateway," snakes its way from the Tibetan plateau through many of China's provinces before arriving, 3,900 miles later, at the East China Sea. It's said that a staggering half a billion people depend on the Yangtze for freshwater. But as the Tibetan glaciers shrink, as they already are, the flow of the once-mighty Yangtze will dwindle. The glaciers are expected to lose 60 percent of their mass by the end of the century, which will severely lessen the availability of freshwater and the production of crucial crops like rice. The ecological, economic, and human costs will be severe.
Western Hudson Bay, Canada
And, of course, the polar bears. Western Hudson Bay is famous for them. The bay is historically covered with ice until late Spring, when it begins to melt and open up, and the polar bears—only able to hunt seals from the ice—go into hibernation. The bay, however, is already opening up three weeks earlier than it was just 40 years ago, and earlier every year. Soon, scientists expect to see an ice-free bay for more than half the year, leaving polar bears too little time to build up enough fat reserves to survive the lengthening summers.