Antarctic Peninsula
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“The Antarctic Peninsula has 40 percent less sea ice than it used to,” says University of Alabama’s Dr. James McClintock, adding that within 20 to 40 years it’s likely that no ice will form at all. How to see it now: New eco-ships such as Abercrombie & Kent’s Le Boreal are a low-impact way to explore this breathtaking wonderland.
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updated 12/22/2009 2:26:07 PM ET 2009-12-22T19:26:07

Imagine: you’re hiking along a switchback high in China’s Shen Nong Gorge. Built into the cliffs in the manner of birds’ nests are nearly 100 coffins dating back millennia; below, pods of freshwater dolphin frolic in the Yangtze River. That was two years ago. Today, the hanging coffins are submerged and the dolphins extinct—both victims of the rising waters of the Three Gorges dam.

It’s no secret that humans have burnt, hacked, chopped, and poisoned our way through more forests, reefs, and wetlands than you can shake an old-growth stick at. Combine that with global warming, and the effects are often devastating. In spite of all this, natural wonders are surprisingly abundant, and they’re easier to visit than ever before.

Take Antarctica, for example, accessible by a three-hour flight from Punta Arenas, Argentina, or a three-day expedition cruise with Abercrombie & Kent. Dr. James McClintock, professor of polar and marine biology at the University of Alabama and lecturer for A&K, explains that the midwinter temperature at the South Pole—the most pristine wilderness on earth—has increased by nearly two degrees Fahrenheit per decade over the last 60 years.

“Ten years ago at the research station, I would hear a glacier calving into the bay once every week; now it’s three times a day,” McClintock says.

Top 10 ecotourist hot spots

For those of us who prefer to experience natural wonders minus the polar fleece and mittens, there’s Montana’s Glacier National Park, with 700 miles of trails, close to 1,000 campsites, and two historic Swiss chalet lodges.

Those lodges were built when glaciers were, apparently, too numerous to count; today, according to Richard Armstrong—senior research scientist from the National Snow and Ice Data Center based in Boulder, CO—those glaciers are quickly falling victim to global warming.

The Maldives
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The lowest lying nation on earth, the Republic of Maldives is the canary in the coal mine for global warming. Land has been purchased in neighboring countries to house the country’s 380,000 inhabitants who would be made homeless by a rise in sea level of just three feet. How to see it now: Stay at Banyan Tree Vabbinfaru, a 48-villa property built on the footprint of an existing resort with the intention of preserving trees and preventing beach erosion.

Our impact has been massive below the water as well. According to Dr. Sylvia Earle, explorer, author, and winner of the prestigious TED Prize in 2009, nearly half of the world’s coral reefs have disappeared.

And still, areas like the Great Barrier Reef are not wholly protected marine environments; in fact, commercial fishing is still perfectly legal throughout a majority of the reef. Fortunately, there’s still time to dive below the surface to explore the reef’s mesmerizing colors and otherworldly fish.

There is good news, though: some natural wonders are actually growing. According to a recent UNESCO report, deserts and other arid zones cover more than a third of the world’s land, and they’re getting bigger. The Sahara, once a savanna of grasslands and lakes, creeps ever southward, and impressive new deserts are forming in China and Madagascar. (Okay, most of this expansion is proof that humans have altered our planet, but they’re still amazing phenomena nonetheless.)

When it comes to nature’s most fragile of wonders, our motto is: See them, love them, preserve them. The next time you plan a trip, use our list for inspiration.

Copyright © 2012 American Express Publishing Corporation

Photos: Taking aim at global warming

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  1. Reporters, photographers and television crews gather around a TV monitor to listen as U.S. President Barack Obama address delegates at the final day of the UN Climate Change Conference on Friday, Dec. 18, in Copenhagen, Denmark. President Barack Obama plunged into an unscheduled meeting Friday with representatives of nearly 20 nations as world leaders, pressed for time, struggled to reach an agreement on how to curb heat-trapping gasses. (Peter Macdiarmid / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. U.S. President Barack Obama speaks during a plenary session at the Bella Center in Copenhagen on Friday. (Attila Kisbenedek / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. A German climate activist cries as her hair is cut outside the venue of the Climate Summit in Copenhagen, Denmark on Friday. (Jens Dresling / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Snow and ice are cleaned off a globe on Dec. 17 in Copenhagen, Denmark. The globe is part of an art exhibit set up as nations here seek an agreement to curb greenhouse gas emissions. (Pawel Kopczynski / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Protestors with a group called Lobbyists for Profitable Climate Solutions, one holding fake dollar bills, another holding a sign reading "Stop Global Whining," heckle other demonstrators near the venue of the U.N. climate talks in Copenhagen on Dec. 16. (Peter Dejong / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Danish riot police push back protestors outside the venue of the U.N. Climate Conference in Copenhagen on Dec. 16. (Peter Dejong / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. A demonstrator hit by pepper spray receives help outside the U.N. talks on Dec. 16. Hundreds of climate demonstrators marched to the summit venue to show their anger over the slow progress being made by nations towards a climate deal. (Jeff J Mitchell / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. A police officer uses his baton on activists trying to get into the U.N. talks on Dec. 16. (Pawel Kopczynski / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. An activist shouts at police as he and others try to get into the U.N. talks in Copenhagen on Dec. 16. More than 200 people were arrested when they overran the police barricade to the summit conference hall. (Adrian Dennis / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. A Danish riot policeman clubs an activist who climbed on top of a police vehicle outside the U.N. talks on Dec. 16. (Peter Dejong / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. An officer wipes his eyes after police used pepper spray against protesters on Dec. 16. (Christian Charisius / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) activists plant hand-shaped signs with the words "Tackle climate change!" outside the foreign ministry in Berlin, Germany, on Dec. 16. (John Macdougall / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Several hundred government delegates and environment ministers from around the world attend a plenary session on Dec. 16. The success of the U.N. climate conference is hanging in the balance as China and the U.S. deadlocked over whether Beijing will allow the world to check its books and verify promised cuts in greenhouse gas emissions. (Anja Niedringhaus / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Greepeace activists scale Australia's Sydney Opera House on Dec. 15 to make a climate statement urging nations to reach a treaty agreement. The activists were later arrested and charged with trespassing. (Dean Sewell / Greenpeace via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. In Copenhagen, Denmark, climate activists have held daily rallies, including this one on Dec. 15. Copenhagen is the host city for the U.N. Climate Change Conference. (Christian Charisius / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Riot police clash with climate activists in Copenhagen on Dec. 14. Between Dec. 12 and 14, police arrested nearly 1,300 activists. (Yoan Valat / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Visitors to the National Mall in Washington, D.C., on Dec. 14 check out a mock ark meant to symbolize the lack of a backup plan if nations fail to agree to a climate treaty. One consequence of runaway warming would be rising seas and widespread flooding. (Michael Reynolds / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Several hundred protesters march during a climate protest in Copenhagen on Dec. 14. (Anders Debel Hansen / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Climate activists shout slogans during a march in Copenhagen on Dec. 14. (Peter Macdiarmid / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Former U.S. Vice President Al Gore speaks at a presentation Dec. 14 on melting Arctic ice at the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen. (Bob Strong / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. A member of Greenpeace demonstrates during a 'Climate No Border' protest in Copenhagen on Dec. 14. The activist is dressed as 'Death', one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. (Peter Macdiarmid / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. People get ready before the start of a 'Climate No Borders' march together with several hundred protesters in Copenhagen. (Christian Charisius / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Activists dressed as polar bears stage a protest at the U.N. Climate Summit in Copenhagen. (Heribert Proepper / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. A protester looks out from inside a police vehicle following her arrest in Copenhagen on Sunday, Dec. 13. Ministers from 48 countries met behind closed doors amid fresh protests a day after police arrested nearly 1,000 demonstrators. (Andreas Hillergren / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. Archbishop Desmond Tutu gestures while speaking on stage during a "Time for Climate Justice" public event at Radhuspladsen in Copenhagen. (Adrian Dennis / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. With emissions from a local factory behind it, a take-off on the Statue of Liberty that was erected by climate activists stands tall on Dec. 12, near the U.N. climate talks in Copenhagen, Denmark. (Attila Kisbenedek / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. Climate activists taking part in a mass rally in Copenhagen on Dec. 12 hug a police officer standing guard. (Adrian Dennis / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. Police in Copenhagen on Dec. 12 arrest some of the tens of thousands who marched downtown. (Dresling Jens / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  29. More than 600 people were detained as night fell in Copenhagen on Dec. 12. (Mads Nissen / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  30. A large globe featuring an interactive display sits in a central square in Copenhagen on Dec. 10. (Christian Charisius / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  31. In New Delhi, India, activists on Dec. 10 prepare to release sky lanterns to express their hopes for the climate conference. (Manish Swarup / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  32. A demonstrator taunts Danish riot police during a protest in Copenhagen on Dec. 11. (Peter Dejong / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  33. This ice sculpture of a polar bear set up in Copenhagen had nearly melted by Dec. 10. (Christian Charisius / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  34. This coal-fired power plant in Macedonia, seen on Dec. 10 as pigs feed on a nearby trash dump, is one of thousands around the world that emit large quantities of carbon dioxide. (Ognen Teofilovski / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  35. Delegates gather on Dec. 10 before a plenary session at the 12-day U.N. climate summit in Copenhagen. (Attila Kisbenedek / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  36. Activists dressed as aliens on Dec. 10 roam the halls where the U.N. climate summit is being held. (Bob Strong / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  37. A woman walks past one of the dozens of exhibits at the climate summit on Dec. 10. (Axel Schmidt / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  38. Thick smoke from a coal-fired oven fills the air in this neighborhood of Calcutta, India, on Dec. 9. Coal burning is a key source of manmade carbon dioxide emissions. (Parth Sanyal / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  39. Climate activists throw lifesize inflatable dolls into the reflecting pool on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., on Dec. 9. Wearing t-shirts that say "CO2 Kills," the dolls are supposed to represent people who die from climate-related illness. (Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  40. This balloon with a message sits near Copenhagen’s City Hall on Dec. 9. (Axel Schmidt / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  41. Iceberg B17B, top left, floats in the Ross Sea near Antarctica after it broke off from the Ross Ice Shelf nearly 10 years ago. The monster iceberg, at 12 miles long and 5 miles wide nearly twice the size of Hong Kong, has been slowly drifting toward Australia in what scientists call a once-in-a-century event. It is now about 1,100 miles southwest of Australia. Accelerated glacial and ice shelf melt and collapses have been tied to global warming. (Australian Antarctic Division / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  42. Lisa Jackson, the head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, speaks at a news conference at the U.N. Climate Change Conference 2009 in Copenhagen on Dec. 9. (Bob Strong / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  43. Climate change conference participants walk in front of a display of pictures on Dec. 9 in the Bella Center in Copenhagen, the venue of the 12-day meeting. Negotiators at the U.N.-organized marathon sought to calm emotions after developing countries blasted an early draft proposal that they said favored rich carbon emitters and sidelined the poor. (Attila Kisbenedek / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  44. A man walks through heaps of ash outside a thermal power plant in the village of Doburjian in the northern Indian state of Punjab on Dec. 9. A 20 percent cut in greenhouse gases by rich nations would be a "pretty good" result for a U.N. climate summit, even though it falls short of developing nations' hopes, the head of the U.N. climate panel said during the meeting’s opening days. (Ajay Verma / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  45. Members of environmental activist group Greenpeace unfurl a banner from Rome's Colosseum on Dec. 9. (Tony Gentile / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  46. Emissions-producing diesel trucks and cars pass non-polluting windmills that stand along the I-10 freeway near Banning, Calif., on Dec. 8. Sustained global warming shows no sign of letting up, according to a new analysis by the World Meteorological Organization and made public at the climate talks in Copenhagen. Although global temperature fluctuates from year to year, overall the decade of the 2000s is likely the warmest in the last 150 years covered by the report. This decade is warmer than the 1990s which were warmer than the 1980s, and so on. The conclusions are in line with independent analysis by the National Climatic Data Center and NASA. (David Mcnew / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  47. Delegates answer journalists' questions in front of the Bella Center in Copenhagen on the second day of the U.N. climate conference on Dec. 8. Talks hit turbulence on their second day, as developing countries, green groups and activists attacked an early draft of a compromise deal proposed by Denmark, the conference chair. The leaked document – dated Nov. 27 – was criticized as a backroom deal that favored rich countries on the key issues of emissions curbs and financing. (Jens Nørgaard Larsen / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  48. An activist outside the climate summit in Copenhagen on Dec. 8 makes a point about Europe not retreating from its aggressive targets for CO2 emissions reductions. (Anja Niedringhaus / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  49. Mankind's reliance on fossil fuels, including these commuters in Taipei, Taiwan, on Dec. 7, is tied to the sharp increase in CO2 since the start of the industrial age. (Nicky Loh / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  50. Global actions to lobby for curbing greenhouse gas emissions include this rally by children, some dressed as trees, in Sidon, Lebanon, on Dec. 8. (Str / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  51. This globe is part of the "Cool Globes" art installation on display in Copenhagen during the climate talks. (Adrian Dennis / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  52. This furnace is part of a steel plant in Kazakhstan. The 1960s-era factory is Central Asia's biggest steel producer -- and one of its biggest emitters of CO2 and other greenhouse gases. (Shamil Zhumatov / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  53. Commuters walk beneath a "Hopenhagen" banner in Copenhagen on Dec. 7. The climate summit is not expected to live up to original expecations of a global climate treaty with mandatory emissions reductions. That is now being talked about as a 2010 goal. (Adrian Dennis / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  54. In London, England, activists camped out in Trafalgar Square over the weekend of Dec. 5 after taking part in a mass march through the city. (Leon Neal / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  55. Power stations like this one in Hadera, Israel, have been a part of economc development but they are also key sources of CO2. (Yehuda Raizner / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  56. People watch an illuminated "CO2" cube in the water of St. Jorgens Lake in Copenhagen on Dec. 7. The cube represents the amount of carbon dioxide produced by an average person in one month. (Pawel Kopczynski / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  57. Workers cut down trees as part of a road extension project in the southern Indian city of Chennai on Dec. 7. Officials at the climate talks in Copenhagen warned of the dangers of desertification and rising seas. (Babu / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  58. Sculptures are illuminated as they stand in water outside the climate conference in Copenhagen on Dec. 7. (Anja Niedringhaus / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  59. Demonstrators block the entrance of Chevron Corp. in San Ramon, Calif., on Dec. 7 to coincide with the climate talks. (Paul Sakuma / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  60. Journalists at work Dec. 7 at the climate conference in Copenhagen. Some 100 world leaders are expected to gather at the historic meeting on Dec. 18. (Keld Navntoft / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  61. The U.N.'s top climate official, Yvo de Boer, left, and John Ash, chairman of a key summit committee, listen to a reporter's question at a press conference in Copenhagen on Dec. 6. De Boer held out hope for concrete action to curb emissions, but few expect a new treaty to replace the existing 1997 Kyoto pact. (Larsen Claus Bjørn / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  62. Garbage is scattered across a ship repair yard in Mumbai, India, on Dec. 3. Rising seas is one issue before the climate conference in Copenhagen. (Arko Datta / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  63. A cyclist stops to look at one of the "Cool Globes" in Copenhagen on Dec. 7. (Adrian Dennis / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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