The Maldives (REUTERS)
The Maldives is the epitome of paradise with its bone-white sand, towering palms and crystal-clear waters, but the low-lying chain of 1,190 islands in the Indian Ocean will not be around forever. Sitting at an average of just five feet above sea level (with 80 percent of the Maldives less than three feet above the encroaching waves), many scientists predict that rising water levels could submerge the chain by the turn of the century. A concerned President Mohamed Nasheed conducted the world's first underwater cabinet meeting to highlight the issue ahead of a 2009 UN climate change conference in Copenhagen. He warned world leaders that if something is not done to reduce greenhouse gasses that are warming the planet, the Maldives will soon disappear.
Glacier National Park - USA
Glacier National Park (creative commons/alaskandude)
Glacier National Park in northwestern Montana is losing its namesake ice fields at an astonishing rate. As recently as a century ago, there were as many as 150 glaciers strewn about the park, but warmer temperatures have reduced that number to about 25, and some scientists with the U.S. Geological Survey have warned that the rest of the glaciers may be gone by as early as the end of the decade. The issue has made Montana's glaciers a poster-child for climate change, but the trend is not unique to the park. Roughly 90 percent of glaciers worldwide are in retreat, with major losses recorded across much of Alaska, the Alps and Andes. If the trend continues as predicted, a glacier-less Glacier National Park will not just lose some of its aesthetic appeal, it will lose melt water that helps sustain a constellation of unique plants and animals.
The Great Barrier Reef
Great Barrier Reef (Wikicommons)
Arguably the most complex ecosystem on the planet, the Great Barrier Reef stretches for over 1,615 miles along the northeast coast of Australia. It's larger than the Great Wall of China and the only living thing visible from space, but rising ocean temperatures, due to climate change, water pollution and ocean acidification, have all combined to cause mass coral bleaching. What took over 500,000 years to form could disappear within our lifetime.
Venice - Italy
How much longer can Venice stay above water? It's a question people have been asking for centuries, but the debate really heated up in recent years as rising saltwater cracked centuries-old buildings, crumbling the very foundations of one of the most romantic cities in the world. Scientists estimate that the the city's Gothic and Byzantine palazzos are now sinking at a rate of two millimeters (0.08 inches) each year. Floods have become so commonplace in the city that its nicknames -- "The Floating City," "City of Masks," "Queen of the Adriatic" -- could soon be replaced by another: "The New Atlantis."
Polar Bear Habitat - Canada
Polar Bears in Canada (REUTERS)
The sea ice on which polar bears live and hunt is melting at an astonishing rate, and scientists predict that two-thirds of the word's polar bear population could disappear by 2050. As the arctic heats up, Churchill, Manitoba, the so-called "Polar Bear Capital of the World," may be one of the last places to spot the world's largest land-roving carnivores.
The Florida Everglades - USA
Everglades (creative commons/ajsadeh)
The largest subtropical wilderness in America encompasses 1.5 million acres in southern Florida and boasts the largest mangrove ecosystem in the Western Hemisphere. Yet, it's on UNESCO's "World Heritage in Danger" list. Why? Thousands of acres have disappeared due to urban development and the diversion of water to nearby farms, leaving the Everglades half the size it was a century ago and with 90 percent fewer wading birds. Congress approved a plan in 2000 that it called the "largest environmental restoration project in history," but whether or not it can save the Everglades remains to be seen.
Belize Barrier Reef
Belize Barrier Reef (creative commons/cameliatwu)
This section of the largest barrier reef in the northern hemisphere suffers the same fate as its counterpart in the southern hemisphere. Coral bleaching has plagued some 50 percent of the reef in many areas, destroying the distinctive staghorn coral for which it is famous. Mangrove cutting and excessive development have contributed to the problem, and the decline continues relatively unabated.
Rain Forests of the Atsinanana - Madagascar
Marojejy National Park (wikicommons)
The world's fourth largest island boasts a diverse range of flora and fauna, 80 percent of which is found nowhere else on earth. Yet, the rain forest that once spanned 120,000 square miles is now down to just 20,000. If the deforestation continues, Madagascar could lose many of its treasures, including 20 species of lemurs, in the next 35 years. While there are game reserves on the island, they cover just five percent of the nation and are not contiguous, thus depriving animals of vital transportation corridors. Many of Madagascar's one-of-a-kind wonders will likely disappear before scientists ever have a chance to study and classify them.
Patagonian Ice Fields - Chile
Cerro Fitz Roy (creative commons/dietmar temps)
The Patagonian ice fields, the largest in the world after Antarctica and Greenland, are receding at an alarming rate. A recent study found that up to 90 percent of the mountain glaciers in the region are melting up to 100 times faster than at any time in the past 350 years -- and at least a dozen glacier-fed lakes have vanished virtually overnight in the last five years alone. The culprit? You guessed it: global warming.
The Dead Sea - Israel/Jordan
The Dead Sea (REUTERS)
The Dead Sea holds several titles: It's an important location in the Bible, the saltiest sea on the planet and the site of earth's lowest elevation on land at 1,388 feet below sea level. But soon, it may live up to its ominous name, dying a slow death as its source, the Jordan River, is diverted for agriculture, industry and drinking water to meet the growing water demands of nearby populations. It's estimated that the Dead Sea, whose buoyant waters attract over 1.5 million tourists annually, is shrinking by almost four feet each year. If scientists' estimates are correct, "the world's largest natural spa" could dry up within the next 25 years, making one of the world's first tourist attractions just a hole in the ground.