UNESCOWrangel Island — Photograph by Alexander Gruzdev

Conserving our northernmost ocean gems: Marine World Heritage in the Arctic

This spectacular region is at a crossroads, and the World Heritage Convention is the natural tool to conserve its most precious places.

Disko Bay — Photography by M & G Therin Weise

The Arctic stretches across the top of the planet, encompassing 5.5 million square miles that span the borders of eight nations. Its icy waters are home to wildlife found nowhere else, including bowhead whales, narwhals, and walrus. In the summer, the skies come alive with seabirds that gather to feed and breed.

The Arctic is also ground zero for climate change. Rising temperatures and melting sea ice are opening up new shipping routes and potential oil and gas developments.

This spectacular region is at a crossroads. Climate change and industrialization pose real and urgent threats, and the World Heritage Convention is the best tool we have to safeguard its Outstanding Universal Value.


Monaco Glacier, Svalbard — Photograph by Kerry in London

At present, there are just two natural World Heritage sites in the region: Ilulissat Icefjord and Natural System of Wrangel Island Reserve.


Ilulissat Glacier & Wrangel Island — Photographs by M & G Therin Weise
The Arctic region is underrepresented on UNESCO’s World Heritage List, but IUCN, NRDC and the World Heritage Centre’s Marine Programme are working to change that.

Earlier work by the World Heritage Centre and International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) determined that the Arctic region is underrepresented on UNESCO’s World Heritage List.

In February, Marine science experts from around the world gathered at UNESCO’s Paris Headquarters for a two-day meeting to explore the potential for new marine World Heritage sites in the Arctic.


One of their key conclusions centered on the intimate interaction between local communities, traditional cultures and the Arctic’s natural environment. Experts agreed that the Outstanding Universal Value of the Arctic region should be considered from both its cultural and natural perspectives.

The Arctic is home to wildlife found nowhere else in the world, as well as indigenous communities that have stewarded its lands and waters since time immemorial.
Wrangel Island — Photography by Nikita Ovsyankiov

February’s scientific meeting was part of an innovative multi-year project led by IUCN in partnership with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and the World Heritage Centre’s Marine Programme.


It is made possible through the generous support of the Prince Albert II of Monaco Foundation and WWF Canada. The results are expected to be launched at the IUCN World Conservation Congress in Hawaii, September 2016.

Stay tuned for a report on Marine World Heritage potential in the Arctic in September 2016.

Grey Whale — Photograph by NOAA Fisheries West Coast
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