Image: rain forest
iStockphoto.com/Stephan Hoerold
Temperate rainforests, such as those in the Pacific Northwest, may become more plentiful with global warming, said Michael Mann, director of the Earth System Science Center.
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updated 10/15/2008 9:57:38 AM ET 2008-10-15T13:57:38

Predictions about the rate of global warming vary greatly, but even by conservative estimates it's likely to have a big effect on travel. Many current tourist hotspots will literally be too hot for comfort, while others will lose their natural beauty, be prone to catastrophic storms—or simply be underwater.

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the planet's average temperature could increase by as much as 3.5 degrees celsius by 2100, causing sea levels to rise nearly four feet. If the Greenland and Antarctic continental ice sheets then melt—as some predict—sea levels could rise by an additional 30 feet. Potential side effects include increasingly intense storms, catastrophic heat waves and global flooding on a biblical scale.

But on the upside, many previously undesirable locations farther from the equator, or at higher altitudes, could become much more inviting.

The most obvious tourism beneficiary of global warming will be the Arctic, which is already experiencing dramatic climate change. Sailing across the Northwest Passage from the Pacific coast of Canada to Greenland and the Atlantic wasn't something you could do in the past, but there has been a very dramatic retreat in the summer sea ice in the last few years. Based on satellite imagery, the European Space Agency said that the passage was navigable last year for the first time since monitoring began in 1978. It's likely that the Southern Route, which is deeper and more accommodating to large ships, will soon open up as well.

Popular cruises that currently head up the inland waterway in Alaska may slowly inch further north, as the glaciers recede. "In the summers you might sail past the North Pole, which obviously wasn't feasible in the past," says Michael Mann, director of the Earth System Science Center (ESSC) at Penn State University, and author of "Dire Predictions: Understanding Global Warming."

According to Greg Holland, a director at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, this "opens up a whole lot of possibilities, because people like to come ashore and [for example] go trekking." Tiny fishing towns and seaports could develop into popular tourism stops. "Adventuresome folks will … want to do things, so they'll open up whole new vistas of tourism."

It's not just the North Pole area that will become more hospitable. Larger swaths of southern Greenland will become visitor-friendly, as will various islands in the Arctic circle, including Iceland and Scotland’s Orkney Islands. "Certainly," says Holland, "any island up in the Arctic circle area will become a lot more temperate." They may end up with climates similar to those of coastal Finland and Scandinavia.

Ski resorts will be forced to relocate closer to the poles. In Switzerland and Colorado, for example, the season will gradually shorten, with fewer days of snow each year. This will require more extensive snowmaking efforts, and make it less profitable to run the resorts. "Maybe Whistler will become the southern edge of the ski region in the Rockies," says Mann. The "new Alps" could be mountains in Russia or Scandinavia.

According to some, southern Europe — including most of Spain, southern France and Italy — will be hit by serious heat waves in the summers, making their beaches much less appealing for sun worshippers. "It's not like southern Europe is going to be the Sahara Desert," says Mann. "It might become like the desert southwest U.S. though." What would take the place of Cote D'Azur and the Greek Isles? "It may be that … the beaches of the North Sea replace the Mediterranean as the European summer tourist destination."

Image: Ski Areas of Northern British Columbia and Northern Europe
Ben Blankenburg  /  iStockphoto.com
In the mountains of Switzerland and Colorado, the ski season will gradually shorten, with fewer and fewer days of snow each year. In time, Whistler could become the southern edge of the ski region in the Rockies, while mountains in Russia and Scandinavia could attract more skiers.

Popular beaches in the Caribbean and along the Atlantic Coast in the U.S. — particularly in southern Florida — may be submerged as the ocean creeps inland. Southern Louisiana, Miami, the Bahamas, Savannah and Charleston, S.C. could be fully underwater, and travel to the region could be further hampered by increasingly intense tropical cyclones in the summers. "The risk of going on a cruise in the Caribbean during hurricane season may become so great that we're no longer doing it," says Mann. Snowbirds may choose to winter instead in the Northeast, where Delaware, New Jersey and New York will offer temperate beachfronts year-round.

On the other side of the planet, snorkelers may no longer have Australia's Great Barrier Reef to explore, as its corals will become bleached by changes in the sea's temperature and acidity. "Easter Island, or the Eastern Galapagos, may become more conducive to supporting more extensive coral reefs," says Mann. "Some of these subtropical regions where corals are living at the limit of their environmental range might actually become more extensive."

Mann notes, however, that tourism to these new reefs won't offer the same experience as today's hotspots. "It won't feel the same," he says. "It won't have the same plants and animals."

Predicting the future is, of course, fraught with uncertainty — and who knows? Maybe humanity will suddenly figure out a way to turn the trends around — so we'd advise caution before investing in Greenland real estate to capitalize on tomorrow's tourism boom.

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