Travel is about more than just a remarkable destination. It requires understanding that you’re seeing a place at a particular moment in time and that it won’t always look the same. And now more than ever, travel is about feeding your wanderlust with heightened awareness and a real sense of urgency.
Today’s world is full of stunning but transitioning places. We chose to highlight these threatened locations because they are unique or emblematic of others facing similar ecological struggles. Climate change is dissolving what’s left of Glacier National Park’s icy masses, altering the flow of rivers on remote Banks Island and disrupting a teeming Canadian wildlife corridor. Logging is not only clearing wild swaths of Scandinavia but is also an intensifying issue in the Amazon rainforest and in Africa’s Congo region. Dams are spoiling the pristine Chilean countryside and drowning villages and natural wonders in China.
Whether you see these disappearing destinations firsthand or admire them from home, their future depends on our willingness to protect them. Visiting might compel you to act, but traveling mindfully is crucial, too. However you go about it, act now. The world isn’t waiting.
Dead Sea, Israel, Jordan, and Palestine
The water level in the world’s saltiest sea is dropping a few feet each year, mostly because of water diversions from its main source, the Jordan River, and mineral extractions from its southern basin. Throughout most of modern history, the sea held steady at about 50 miles long. Now it barely covers 30 miles, and experts say it could lose another third—or more—before the water hits its maximum salt saturation, and evaporation stops.
How to go
The Dor Kayak Club guides paddlers on very buoyant Dead Sea excursions. Bring goggles to protect your eyes from the salty spray.
When to go
It’s hot enough to enjoy a saltwater swim year-round, but try to avoid Jewish holidays, when many businesses are closed and hotels are overbooked.
Friends of the Earth Middle East has launched an awareness campaign and is circulating a petition to register the Dead Sea as an UNESCO World Heritage site. This crucial designation would bring international funding and support to a body of water that millions rely upon.
The Dead Sea appears in Muslim, Christian, and Jewish texts and has turned up more than a few relics from the past—this is where Bedouin goat herders stumbled upon the Dead Sea Scrolls in a seaside cave in 1947. It’s also a stone’s throw from Jericho, which is possibly the world’s oldest continuously inhabited settlement. Also in the Dead Sea region lies Masada, the ancient fortress where Jewish refugees chose mass suicide over Roman capture nearly 2,000 years ago. It sits on a plateau at the edge of the Judean Desert overlooking the evaporating sea. And some believe the sea’s confluence with the Jordan River is the site of Jesus’ baptism.
Great Barrier Reef, Australia
Large swaths of the spectacular but sensitive reef are “bleaching” white in response to an increase in water temperature; coral often rebounds from this condition, but sustained high temperatures are now making recovery impossible. Ocean acidification is a lesser-known but equally threatening phenomenon. Caused by an excess of carbon dioxide absorbed from the atmosphere, acidification stunts the growth of coral and weakens its skeleton.
How to go
Heron and Wilson islands, two coral cays that lie at the heart of the reef, are a great way to bypass the day-tripping masses. The islands, which straddle the Tropic of Capricorn, have only one resort each, both of which are certified by Ecotourism Australia. Heron Island is also home to the University of Queensland’s Centre for Marine Studies, which researches both coral bleaching and acidification.
When to go
The reef always has something spectacular to offer. Humpback whales migrate past Heron Island from June through September, followed by nesting flocks of migratory birds and turtles laying their eggs.
The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority has many creative suggestions for how to “do your bit to look after it,” no matter where in the world you live.
The celebrated coral spawning, generally in November, has been likened to an underwater blizzard.
Aysén, Patagonia, Chile
Spanish power company Endesa plans to build two dams along the Río Baker and two on the Río Pascua in southern Aysén, one of the last truly pristine places on the planet. The 2,430-megawatt project will provide some short-term construction jobs and a temporary boost to the local economy. It will also flood up to 36 square miles of land, permanently alter the ecology, and turn the upper Baker stagnant.
How to go
Raft the Baker from source to sea with Patagonia Adventure Expeditions. It’s an eight-day, 125-mile journey fromthe Northern Ice Field to the Pacific in water that’s clean enough to drink.
When to go
December is the peak of summer in the Southern Hemisphere, when you’re least likely to encounter icy gusts and storms.
Local eco group National Committee for the Defense of Flora and Fauna is behind a campaign to designate Aysén a reserva de vida (life reserve). While the title carries no legal protections, it could have an economic impact. By creating a regional identity centered around preserving resources instead of exploiting them, environmentalists hope to give businesses and community leaders a financial incentive to choose sustainable development. Expat activists Doug Tompkins, the American founder of the North Face and Esprit brands, refuses to allow Endesa surveyors on the reserve he owns near the town of Cochrane. He and his wife, former Patagonia CEO Kristine McDivitt Tompkins, have purchased more than 1,100 square miles of Chilean land for conservation, part of which makes up Parque Pumalín.
Sagarmatha (Everest) National Park, Nepal
The park, which encompasses 443 square miles from the top of Mount Everest to the valleys to its south, has become increasingly pocked with glacial lakes that pose a flooding threat to the villages below. As glaciers melt, they shed the layers of rocks and sediment that were trapped inside the ice, and the debris forms natural dams. Meltwater collects behind the unstable moraines until the pressure collapses the walls, unleashing powerful floods of water, boulders, and mud. Scientists have predicted that 20 of Nepal’s glacial lakes are filling so quickly they could breach their walls by 2009. If an earthquake strikes the Himalayas, dozens could burst at once.
How to go
KarmaQuest treks include a visit to the national park visitor center for a primer on responsible trekking from the Sagarmatha Pollution Control Committee, the region’s conservation group.
When to go
Spring and fall are good times to visit. Travel with KarmaQuest in October and you’ll get to see the colorful Mani-Rimdu festival at Tyangboche.
Donating to the World Wildlife Fund (panda.org) supports the Climate Change Program, which was founded in 2003 to address the economic, social, political, and environmental impacts of global warming in the eastern Himalayan region.
Landmark in retreat
Sir Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay launched their Everest summit from the edge of the Khumbu glacier. To reach the glacier today, you’ll have to walk two hours from their 1953 base camp.
Napa Valley, California
Climatologists predict that rising temperatures could alter the growing conditions that have long been key to Napa’s famed wine. Grapes are fickle fruits: They require hot days and cool nights throughout the growing season. Napa’s 63°F average is already on the warm end, where varietals like Syrah and Merlot thrive. Any hotter and you’re in raisin country. If the current climate trajectory continues, Northern California will warm 2–3°F in the next 50 years. That’s more than enough to affect grape quality.
How to go
Stay at the eco-friendly Solage Calistoga resort and spa, where room service is delivered by bike, the produce is local and organic, and natural hot springs provide radiant heating for the spa treatment rooms. Explore the vineyards on two wheels instead of four with Napa Valley Bike Tours.
When to go
Visit in the spring or fall, when the vineyards are bursting with color, the weather is mild, and tasting rooms are the least crowded.
Support venues like Robert Sinskey Vineyards, an organic winery that gets most of its electricity from solar panels and runs its vehicles on biodiesel. “If we can make people in the wine industry understand that you can make a better wine being environmentally sound,” says vintner Robert Sinskey, “then perhaps we can get some of these educated people to respect the planet a little more in their daily practices.”
The 1973 Chardonnay by Napa’s Chateau Montelena Winery won a 1976 blind tasting competition in Paris that ended the era of France’s uncontested winemaking dominance. The winery is housed in a hillside stone castle at the foot of Mount St Helena. Someday the building might be a relic of the “old” wine country.
Inside Passage, British Columbia
With more than a million waste-producing tourists riding cruise ships to Alaska each year, British Columbia’s stunning coast is poised to become “the toilet of the Pacific Northwest,” says Dr Ross Klein, a sociologist at Newfoundland’s Memorial University. How serious is the problem? “There is no monitoring of ships in BC’s Inside Passage,” Klein says, “so we really don’t know the depth of the environmental threat.”
How to go
When to go
The small-ship cruising season runs May through September, but be prepared for the possibility of cool, wet weather year-round.
Bluewater Network is working to get the international cruise, shipping, and ferry industries to clean up their practices. (Canada’s lax disposal laws are also partly to blame for dumping.) Bluewater scored a recent victory when Intertanko, a major oil tanking association, supported their call for all oceangoing vessels to switch to lower-sulfur fuels.
Disembarking for spontaneous kayak trips and land adventures is a another major perk of small-ship travel. Passengers on the M/V Catalyst have spotted wolves and even the rare spirit bear during hikes through the cedar and spruce forest that lines the BC coast.
Boreal Forests, Finland
Despite the protests of local reindeer herders, the Finnish government continues to mine the old-growth woods of Lapland, one of Europe’s last remaining wilderness areas. The loss of trees here harms not only aesthetics but also local reindeer. The animals normally subsist on tree lichen when the ground is frozen, but with fewer forests to graze in, they’re going hungry.
How to go
On a Lapland Adventures safari you’ll hike, camp, kayak, and even snorkel through some of northern Finland’s stunning waters and wildlands with guides well versed in the region’s natural and cultural histories.
When to go
Summers above the Arctic Circle are drenched in endless sunlight. Conversely, winters are sunless but lit by star-jammed skies and bright curtains of Northern Lights. In spring, a myriad of flowers surface on the Arctic fells and reindeer calves emerge.
Sami reindeer herders give some background on their culture and work, talk about logging on grazing lands, and provide updates on their plight on the Reindeer Herders Association website.
Lake Inari’s pine-lined shores vary from rocky cliffs to beaches and quiet coves. The island-studded lake has many lanky, protected straits, called nuari, perfect for exploring by kayak.
This article originally appeared in Plenty in April 2008.
Copyright Environ Press 2008