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World Heritage

n°52 - May 2009
Earth heritage : A common past… and future

This issue of World Heritage is devoted to a number of truly extraordinary World Heritage sites that allow a better understanding of the history of the Earth and the formation of landscape. It is no surprise that UNESCO has acknowledged this diversity as the basis of the International Year of Planet Earth, a celebration that concludes in 2009. Representatives of two of the global networks working to support Earth sciences: Peter Bobrowsky, Secretary General of the International Union of Geological Sciences (IUGS), and Andrew Goudie, President of the International Association of Geomorphologists (IAG), shared with us their reflections on IYPE and the need to promote the role of Earth sciences in society.

The World Heritage List includes seventy-four sites whose outstanding universal value has been recognized under the selection criterion for geology and geomorphology. These exceptional places include many of the most spectacular landscapes found anywhere on Earth, and connect with the ‘deep time’ of the planet and the record of life demonstrated by the most dramatic fossil sites.

Many of the world’s islands, including Hawaii, the Canaries and the Galápagos, are of volcanic origin, and the process of their emergence has quite recently been made observable by the sudden appearance, in 1963, of the island of Surtsey off the coast of Iceland. Scientists have been studying Surtsey with the greatest attention ever since, and it was recognized as a World Heritage site in 2008. World Heritage institutions are now taking an active interest in geological values, and extending their interests to such deep-sea phenomena as the Mid- Atlantic Ridge.

Vast regions of the Earth are covered with spectacular rock formations that stand as records of the way the planet reached its present form. Karst areas, with their great limestone gorges, caverns and underground rivers, are found notably in South-Eastern Europe, China, Madagascar and Viet Nam. Their stone forests and mountainous formations, almost beyond comprehension, have been carefully observed and faithfully painted by Chinese artists for centuries. South China Karst, another recently inscribed World Heritage site, includes some of the most spectacular representations of these limestone landscapes.

A number of other sites offer significant testimony to the formation of such great mountain ranges as the Alps and the Himalayas, through the relentless movement of the Earth’s great tectonic plates, while stratigraphic sites worldwide reveal the tremendous range covered by the Earth’s history and establish a reliable chronology. Wadi Al-Hitan in Egypt, which tells the story of the early evolution of whales, the ‘Coal Age Galápagos’ of Joggins Fossil Cliffs in Canada, or the record of the Age of the Dinosaurs seen at Dorset and East Devon Coast, United Kingdom, are among the World Heritage properties that illustrate the incredible story of life on Earth, while other sites focus on human evolution.

These exceptional geological formations convey values that are of enormous scientific interest and also form links to the origins of the planet and to human ancestry. The visually impressive nature of many of them is convincingly apparent in the articles and stunning photographs assembled here.

Table of Contents

In focus

  • Earth heritage : A common past… and future
    The history of Earth spans some 3.5 billion years. In recognition of the 2008 International Year of Planet Earth, this issue will focus on the world’s geological heritage and help us understand the key events in the history of life on our planet, beginning with an overview of the primary World Heritage sites that display geological values.
  • Treasures and challenges of World Heritage volcanoes
    Volcanoes have played an important role in the geological history of the Earth, and they still modify and transform the landscape. Many natural sites insribed on the World Heritage List include active or dormant volcanoes.
  • Aeons of erosion: Karst landscapes on the World Heritage List
    The word karst stems from karra or gara, meaning stone. The karst landscapes of the kocjan Caves (Slovenia) and South China Karst (China) World Heritage sites are both characterized by caves, dry valleys, gorges, natural bridges, fluted rock outcrops and large springs.
  • Icons of the record of life: Fossil World Heritage sites
    Fossils are evidence of ancient life in the form of bones, shells, tracks, trails, carbonized impressions, moulds or casts. World Heritage fossil sites have played a significant role in reconstructing and demonstrating this history.

Close-up

  • Global Network of National Geoparks
    Geoparks use a holistic approach to conservation where all aspects of the natural and cultural heritage are valued, conserved and promoted under the geopark label.

Forum

  • Interview: Peter Bobrowsky, Secretary general for the International Union of Geological Sciences and Andrew Goudie, Chair of the International Association of Geomorphologists.
  • Advisory bodies: World Heritage at IUCN’s World Conservation Congress
  • Conventions: Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity comes into being: Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage to enter into force
  • Profile: Preserving Petra Dr Talal Akasheh and the Geographic Information System

News

  • Preservation
    Rehabilitation of San Sebastian Fortress; Disaster Risk Reduction Programme developed for World Heritage sites; Altai Mountains Workshop; Australian Funds-in-Trust support activities in Asia-Pacific; Lalibela Conservation Action Plan implemented; Reactive monitoring mission to Edinburgh; Workshop on birthplace of the Lord Buddha; Aksum Obelisk restored following reinstalation; Indian mayors visit five French cities; World Heritage Cities Act; Riga and Lyon cooperate; Periodic reporting: what have we learned?
  • In Danger
    Consolidation of the Humberstone and Santa Laura Saltpeter Works (Chile); Mining incompatible with World Heritage status of Mount Nimba; New crisis at Virunga National Park (Democratic Republic of the Congo); LRA Rebels attack Garamba National Park (DRC) Headquarters
  • Outreach
    Patrimonito Volunteer Camp a success; Fellowships awarded for World Heritage; European Commission contributes €2.5 million to Central Africa World Heritage Forest Initiative; Tides of Time; ‘Alliance of World Heritage Cultural Landscapes’ formed; Spain honours the UNESCO World Heritage Centre; Launch of 2009 International Year of Astronomy; World Heritage Centre receives World Tourism Award; UNESCO signs partnership with the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA); Ashok Khosla new President of IUCN; Joining of volcanic forces; ICOMOS elects new leadership; 2008-2009 World Heritage map available; Sky race for heritage; Jim Charleton
  • In print and online
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UNESCO Publishing
Author
World Heritage Centre
Issue
52