Five wild places have joined the list of 217 natural World Heritage Sites today. They include a foggy desert, one of the world's most active volcanoes, and a national park sprinkled with gorges and glaciers.
The UNESCO World Heritage Committee selects places to inscribe as World Heritage Sites every year from a list of nominees. Guided by the World Heritage Convention—which was created in 1972—the Committee is tasked with selecting and ensuring the protection of natural and cultural areas of "outstanding universal value."
In order for a natural site to be listed, it must meet one of four criteria:
● To contain superlative natural phenomena or areas of exceptional natural beauty and aesthetic importance;
● To be outstanding examples representing major stages of Earth's history, including the record of life, significant ongoing geological processes in the development of landforms, or significant geomorphic or physiographic features;
● To be outstanding examples representing significant ongoing ecological and biological processes in the evolution and development of terrestrial, freshwater, coastal, and marine ecosystems and communities of plants and animals;
● To contain the most important and significant natural habitats for in-situ conservation of biological diversity, including those containing threatened species of outstanding universal value from the point of view of science or conservation.
The Namib Sand Sea, part of the Namib Desert that runs up the southwestern coast of Africa from South Africa to Angola, is the first natural site in ten years to meet all four criteria. Of the 13 sites nominated this year, eight fulfilled only one or two of the categories.
Mount Etna (pictured), located on the island of Sicily, Italy, is also a newcomer to the list. Formed by the collision between the African and Eurasian tectonic plates, Mount Etna is Europe's tallest active volcano, standing at 11,000 feet (3,330 meters) high.
"Researchers have been fascinated by Mount Etna for thousands of years," said Tim Badman, director of the IUCN World Heritage Program, in a statement. "We hope that this prestigious status brings with it enhanced protection of the site, especially in the face of growing pressures from tourism."
The Xinjiang Tianshan mountain range in China also made the cut. This diverse area spans about 19,700 feet (6,000 meters) in elevation and is home to 140 endemic plants and animals and 477 rare and endangered species.
Tajik National Park became Tajikistan's first natural World Heritage Site. The park covers about 18 percent of this central Asian country and contains deserts, alpine lakes, fields of glaciers, and some of the deepest gorges in the world.
And last but not least, Mexico's El Pinacate and Gran Desierto de Altar Biosphere Reserve rounds out the list of the five newest World Heritage Sites. Located in the Sonoran Desert, the reserve contains a large, dormant volcano with more than 400 cinder cones and North America's largest area of active sand dunes.
—Jane J. Lee