In Icelandic, “Vatnajökull” means “the water glacier.” At over 3,000 square miles, this massive ice cap covers more than eight percent of Iceland.
“I remember the first time I seen a glacier, it moved my heart – I couldn’t imagine this mass of ice existing,’ said Agata, a guide at Vatnajökull National Park when correspondent Conor Knighton visited pre-pandemic.
Vatnajökull is one of the largest glaciers in all of Europe, and it has another noteworthy distinction: It was recently recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.
Knighton headed to an office building in Paris to get some answers.
“The idea of the convention is to protect the most outstanding places – those which have outstanding universal value for all of humanity – for future generations,” said Mechtild Rössler, the director of UNESCO’s World Heritage Centre, located in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower (itself part of another World Heritage Site).
UNESCO – the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization – adopted the World Heritage Convention in 1972. Their first list of outstanding places included 12 spots, ranging from Ethiopia’s rock-hewn churches to Yellowstone National Park.
Today, there are more than 1,100 World Heritage Sites. There are culturally significant locations, like India’s Taj Mahal and Missouri’s prehistoric Cahokia Mounds; and naturally impressive locations, like England’s Jurassic Coast, and Botswana’s Okavango Delta.
This week, the committee is meeting virtually, reviewing dozens of possible additions to the list.
Rössler said, “I get many letters every day. People write, ‘Why is this church, or this city, or this park, not protected by UNESCO?'”
For starters, World Heritage Sites must be nominated by their home country, and meet at least one of ten defined criteria. It can be a masterpiece of “human creative genius,” or it can be the most important habitat for a specific animal.
Iceland’s Vatnajökull was deemed geologically significant.
“It is a combination of the great forces of nature: ice and fire, and the different landforms that creates,” said Helga Árnadóttir, a park manager for Vatnajökull.
Knighton asked, “I’ve seen the ice; where’s the fire?”
“It’s underneath the ice,” she replied. Vatnajökull sits on top of an active volcano.
Icelandic officials spent years preparing a 362-page submission to win UNESCO’s approval in 2019.
2020 was the first year UNESCO didn’t name any new sites – the pandemic preempted the annual committee meeting.
Knighton asked, “It seems in a way it’s a brand name. Is it more than that? Is it more than just a brand?”
“It is much more than a brand,” Rössler replied. “A brand is very important, but it’s really an international system for protection.”
While UNESCO monitors the sites, it generally doesn’t fund them. The organization’s power is largely tied to its prestige. “Because it has this recognition, also the tourism industry is investing around these sites because these are of course key attractions,” Rössler said. “So, you see, the World Heritage status helps.”
But what UNESCO giveth, it can also taketh away.
In 2009, Germany’s Dresden Elbe Valley was taken off the World Heritage list after a modern bridge was built across the landscape. Rössler said, “I think it was a wakeup call, that you cannot just do what you want. You cannot do a development which may be threatening the reasons why the site was listed in the first place.”
There are currently 53 sites on what’s known as the World Heritage Danger List.
Some, like Palmyra in Syria, are threatened because they’re in conflict zones.
Others, like the tropical rainforest of Sumatra, are threatened due to ongoing poaching and agricultural exploitation.
The U.S. is currently not part of UNESCO;, thanks to a conflict that dates back to a 2011 vote, in which UNESCO admitted Palestine as a member. That triggered a law that prevents the U.S. from funding any U.N. agency which recognizes an independent Palestine.
But Rössler is hopeful the U.S. will return to the organization that once upon a time it helped establish. “Not only the sites in the U.S. benefit a lot from the World Heritage Status, but many American tourists around the world benefit from visiting the World Heritage Sites, and from their preservation and presentation,” she said.
In fact, the U.S. recently received another designation; the 20th century architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright was added to the list in 2019. Eight buildings, from Falling Water in Pennsylvania to Hollyhock House in Los Angeles, have been deemed World Heritage-worthy.
Back at Vatnajökull National Park, as with all sites, a listing alone doesn’t really change a lot in the short term. Except, perhaps, for perceptions.
“It makes you really proud,” said Helga Árnadóttir. “It was of great value for Icelanders, but now it’s of great value for the whole world.”
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Story produced by Mikaela Bufano. Editor: Brian Robbins.