The Great Pyramid is one. Ilulissat Icefjord is another. The Bikini Atoll nuclear test site made the list, too. The list is so varied as to almost seem like a random collection of famous places — which begs the question, how are UNESCO World Heritage Sites chosen?
Since 1972, UNESCO has been scouring the planet for its best places. These are places of great cultural significance, exceptional natural beauty and unique ecological importance. They can be buildings, parks, caves, towns, glaciers or even entire islands – what’s important is that they represent the best of what our planet and our cultures have to offer.
Countries nominate their own sites to be evaluated by intergovernmental bodies that advise the World Heritage Committee – Canada currently has eight sites under consideration. They include Newfoundland’s Basque whaling station in Red Bay; Gwai Haanas, the ancient rainforest park within Haida Gwaii; and a southern Alberta petroglyph site sacred to the Blackfoot Confederacy.
The sites are chosen based on ten criteria that, when taken together, are meant to help find the places that need most to be protected for future generations. Some, like Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump, are examples of our living or dead cultures, or the most magnificent things those cultures have produced; others, like Gros Morne National Park, are places where we can see how the earth formed and the unique things that have evolved upon it.
Of all the over 1,583 sites currently nominated by states around the world, only a fraction will be chosen. The process is ongoing, and new sites are added once per year.