Sunday, December 30, 2007

Climate changes force travelers to consider sites sooner than later

Climate changes force travelers to consider sites sooner than later
Exit Glacier near Seward, Alaska, is one of the few glaciers people can walk up to and touch.

It used to be that the only things that stood between you and a holiday to some awe-inspiring, far-flung locale was how much money you had in your pocket and whether you had the vacation time. Yet a third obstacle appears to be rearing its ugly head for some of the world's most cherished, and gorgeous, destinations: the effects of global warming.

Glaciers are melting into oblivion, Mediterranean beaches may soon be too torrid to lounge on during the summer, ski resorts may be hurting for snow, and coral reefs are being bleached white by ocean waters that have grown too warm.

Churchill, Manitoba, in the Canadian Sub-Arctic, is but one example. For decades, tourists have traveled to this snowy spot along the Hudson Bay during October and November's "bear season" to view polar bears in their natural habitat. A 20-year warming trend, however, has caused the bay to melt an average of three weeks earlier and freeze later. As a result, the bears are smaller and fewer in number because of less hunting time on the ice. Scientists estimate the entire population could shrink by two-thirds in the next 50 years.

Kilimanjaro National Park in Tanzania, home to Africa's highest and most famous mountain, is another. The snowy ice cap immortalized by Ernest Hemingway in the short story "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" are melting so quickly that scientists expect them to disappear completely in the next 20 years.

Overall, the news is so gloomy -- and pervasive -- that it's actually given rise to a new form of travel: so-called "doom" tourism.

"There's definitely trouble," says Chris Doyle, director of the Adventure Travel Trade Association, a global membership organization dedicated to promoting and growing the adventure travel market. "Every corner of the Earth truly is being impacted by global climate change."

"Really, it's a tragic thing," agrees Patty Glick, senior global warming specialist for the National Wildlife Federation. "We're feeling so under the gun."

As environmentalists and others scurry to slow or even reverse the negative impact of global warming, travelers might be asking themselves this: What sights should I see sooner rather than later?

In April, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization released a report, "Case Studies on Climate Change and World Heritage." It includes 830 natural and cultural sites facing threats posed by climate change. Among those on the list are Sagarmatha National Park in Nepal, where the melting of glaciers are affecting rare wildlife species such as the snow leopard and the red panda; the city of London, where rising sea levels and flooding of the River Thames due to climate change could have a devastating effect on historic buildings such as the Tower of London; and the Great Barrier Reef in northern Australia. Something of a haven for snorkelers and divers, the reef -- the world's largest single structure made from living organisms -- will be "functionally extinct" by 2050, according to a report released earlier this year by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Then there's Greenland, where icebergs the size of small islands float along the coastline. Some people consider it ground zero for global warming because the ice sheets are melting so quickly, says Ms. Glick. The Ilulissat ice fjord was 25 miles long just a few years ago; today, it measures 31 miles. So hot is the tourism here that officials expect twice as many tourists next year than this year, or about 30,000.

Better accessibility certainly helps: Air Greenland now offers non-stop flights between Baltimore/Washington International Airport and Kangerlussuag, in southeastern Greenland. Cost: about $1,300, depending on the exchange rate. Or, if you have deeper pockets and more time, you can take a boat.

Seattle-based Zegrahm Expeditions, for example, is offering a 17-day expedition of the High Arctic aboard the icebreaker Kapitan Khlebnikov that in addition to Greenland takes in the sights of Ellesmere and Baffin islands; it includes a helicopter excursion to see the melting ice cap in Thule. But it's not cheap: Prices start at about $16,000.

One of the most endangered spots domestically is Glacier National Park in Montana. For close to a century, American families have traveled there to see the glaciers that carved, sculpted and formed this landscape millions of years ago. Yet in some places, the park has shrunk by more than half.

In 1850, notes Tanya Tschesnok, publicity manager for the Sierra Club, the park counted 150 glaciers; today, there are fewer than three dozen.

"And they're smaller than they used to be," she says.

Travelers to Alaska are experiencing the same sense of urgency. According to park rangers, Exit Glacier in Kenai Fjords National Park near Seward, which is one of the most visited sheets of ice in the north, has receded nearly 1,000 feet in the last 10 years.

Global warming also is affecting our beaches and coastal walk lands. As glaciers melt, the sea water is expected to rise anywhere from 8 inches to more than 2 feet over the next century. In Florida, for example, that will translate into the ocean advancing inland as much as 400 feet, eroding the beaches and flooding pricey oceanfront hotels and homes.

"One of the must vulnerable places in the U.S. right now are our coastlines," says Ms. Tschesnok.

There are similar worries about cold-weather destinations like ski resorts. Scientists are projecting that the ski season will not only be shorter but also that the snow line -- the point above which there's snow year-round -- will grow higher as temperatures gradually increase.

The wildlife federation's Ms. Glick isn't alone in wondering if the ski season will be affected at places such as Whistler Blackcomb Ski Resort in British Columbia, north of Vancouver, site of the 2010 Winter Olympics.

"The top might not melt as quickly," says Ms. Glick, "but the lower part of the mountain will definitely see less snow and change the skiing."

Whether it will be an issue during the Olympics, she says, depends on the type of snow year we have, If it's bad, you'll hear a lot of talk of global warming. "But the trends definitely do not look good."

Locally, the Pennsylvania Tourism office to date doesn't have any particular worries about tourist destinations that might suffer from global warming in the near future, according to spokesman Michael Chapaloney. Ms. Glick, though, wonders if the state's cold water streams, which are a major tourist draw for anglers, will stay cold enough to sustain fish.

"You have a lot of good trout streams, and they're warming up to the point where they may not support trout in the future," she said.

Yet depending on your particular viewpoint, it's not all gloom and doom.

While the melting glaciers in Greenland may eventually hurt the ecosystem and threaten wildlife, it has also created new destinations to explore that otherwise would have remained hidden.

"If you go to the ice caps, it's just white and really boring," says adventurer Jeff Mantel of California, who has been on seven Arctic expeditions, including four to the North Pole by foot, "But with the retreat of the glaciers, the coastline of Northern Greenland is really spectacular, with new islands and some really unbelievable sites."

Peter Hess, chairman of the Philadelphia chapter of The Explorers Club and a world-class diver, tells a similar tale. Although it's often touted as the biggest downside of global warming, rising sea levels have actually made it better for divers like himself.

"There's more sites [to explore] under water," he says.

Gretchen McKay can be reached at or 412-263-1419.

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