IUCN Protected Area Themes: Geology

Carly Chabal, Intern, National Parks Association of NSW

World Heritage listing is not just for biodiversity and iconic plants and animals, it is also for the protection and celebration of special landscape features and special and interesting geological features.

What is the IUCN?        

The IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) is a member-based union of both governmental and public organisations. The IUCN strives to provide members with information to help them make environmentally conscious decisions for both social and economic progress. Since its creation in 1948, the IUCN has gained over 1,300 members and over 16,000 scientists and experts that weigh in on conservation issues1. The IUCN is looked to for classifying risk of extinction, climate changes, and other harmful natural threats. The Union is separated into six different commissions that each focus on a specific aspect of the natural world: species survival, social and economic policy, environmental law, ecosystem management, education and communication, and protected areas1.

Protected Areas and World Heritage Listing

Across the globe, unique marine ecosystems, rainforests, desert plains, glacial regions, and staggering landscapes can be given the high-level special title of an IUCN Protected Area. The World Heritage Convention, a partner conservation organisation, can give these areas the title of “UNESCO World Heritage Site” if these areas demonstrate an outstanding level of value. ‘Outstanding level of value’ seems like an arbitrary or relative way to measure natural or cultural importance of an area, so there are certain criteria that must be met for this level to be considered2. For geologic areas, they must be exemplary in either showing major stages of earth’s history, displaying major ongoing geologic processes, part of the record of life, or outstanding geomorphological or geophysical sites2. For these sites to be inscribed, they must meet one or more of these criteria, as well as being an outstanding global sample of the specific geologic criteria. The following are some examples of what geologic feature would fulfill each criterion:

— Stages of Earth’s History: Rift valley formation, orogenic evidence, evidence of meteorite impacts, glaciation evidence, volcanoes and tectonics

— Major Geologic Processes: Glaciation, volcanism, desert processes, coastal and beach processes, and deltaic processes

— Record of Life: Fossil sites that fit into timeline of the evolution of life such as the first Trilobites in the Canadian Burgess Shale

— Outstanding Geomorphological or Geophysical features: Products of active or past processes like fluvial landforms, volcanoes, mountains, reef systems, karsts and caves, deserts, and relict landscapes

Examples of IUCN Protected Geologic Areas and World Heritage Sites in Australia:

Right here in our own backyard of Eastern Australia, we have two World-Heritage Listed Geologic areas: the Greater Blue Mountains Region and the Great Barrier Reef.

The Greater Blue Mountains are listed for their large eucalypt areas, dense wilderness, and large array of wildlife. The sheer cliffs from a tectonically uplifted sandstone plateau, and the deep blue hue of the Eucalyptus vegetation, make the Blue Mountains a gorgeous natural area, as well as a unique habitat for fauna, including many threatened or endangered species. Animals such as the Wallaby, the Spotted-tailed Quoll, the Blue Mountains Water Skink, the Koala, and the Yellow-bellied Glider are all species of significance regarding conservation, so they only add value to the geologic criteria of the region3. In regard to significant flora, the region boasts ancient rainforests with rare Wollemi Pines and ferns. Also within the Blue Mountains region lies the extensive karst environment of the Jenolan Caves. This cave system creates a specific ecosystem for unique biota to thrive.

Even though the Great Barrier Reef is not in New South Wales, it is still worth mentioning as a significant IUCN Protected Area and World Heritage Site.  Not only is it arguably Australia’s most incredible natural wonder, it is one of the most complex and evolving geologic areas in the world. The Great Barrier Reef (GBR) is the most geologically significant reef in existence. It spans over 2,600km and is made of over 2,900 individual reefs. The reef is so large that it can be seen from space and is greater than Tasmania and Victoria’s land area combined. The reef gives a structural skeleton to a complex ecosystem of thousands of species of corals, algae, fish, and invertebrates. Due to climate change effects like ocean acidification, sea level rise, and water temperature increase, a large percentage of the reef has been destroyed, while the remaining portions are still at risk of destruction. Overfishing of the reef and land pollution runoff has also impacted the ecosystem of the reef.  The Great Barrier Reef is a spectacular natural site that is at risk of being lost forever if drastic efforts to repair it are not taken.


The IUCN Protected Area and UNESCO World Heritage Site titles are intended to provide protection to extraordinary geologic places on Earth. Depending on what criteria the geology matches, the site could be delicate like the Great Barrier Reef or stable like the Blue Mountains. Both areas need to be conserved, but for places like the Great Barrier Reef, there may need to be a new title created to provide even more protection from human destruction.


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