UNESCO World Heritage Laponian area in northern Sweden and surrounding landscapes

Author: Katherine Burlingame

In July of 2016 I summitted Sweden’s tallest mountain, the glaciated southern peak of the Kebnekaise massif, located in Sweden’s Lappland province, part of an area known as Sápmi by the indigenous Sámi people. Though the mountain lies roughly 150 km north of the Arctic Circle, it was a comfortable sunny day with a cool breeze and clear visibility, offering expansive views of the surrounding mountains. The Kebnekaise massif boasts several high peaks and glaciers, and its two highest points are the southern glaciated peak and the northern ice-free peak. Over the last 50 years, however, rapid glacial melting due to climate change has led to a 24 m loss in the southern peak’s height. Nearly three years after my summit, Kebnekaise’s southern peak was stripped of its title as it melted below its northern neighbor (Nyman, 2018). I couldn’t fathom I might be one of the last people who were able to have that experience.

Snowy mountains with clouds in the sky
From the summit of Kebnekaise in northern Sweden. Photo by Katherine Burlingame

In recent years, a series of heatwaves and extreme wildfires over the summer months have brought temperatures in this region over 32°C, with nearby areas reaching the highest temperatures ever recorded at such northern latitudes. This has also coincided with the release of a UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report offering a stark warning of the accelerating effects of global warming (IPCC, 2021). Though arctic landscapes are often seen as being far removed from the climate crisis, they consequently take a front seat to its effects. Particularly for landscapes highlighted and protected for their exceptional natural and/or cultural significance, such as those found on the UNESCO world heritage list, climate change can therefore have significant consequences.

Through UNESCO world heritage nominations, cultural landscapes are often perceived as being stagnant or frozen in time even though they are continuously reproduced and molded by both human and natural influences. If the forces of change are considered too severe, sites are typically placed on the List of World Heritage in Danger with the risk of being stripped of their status. Yet, so far, no sites have been placed on this list because of climate change. Focusing on the UNESCO World Heritage Laponian area and other significant natural heritage destinations bordering the area in northern Sweden, this project therefore attempts to understand how climate change affects natural and mixed cultural/natural sites on the World Heritage list.

Mountains and grass with a visible path
Abisko National Park, UNESCO Laponian Area, Sweden. Photo by Katherine Burlingame

Through a series of articles, this project will consider a number of themes including the difficulty of working with ‘icy’ heritage in relation to glacial melting, a critical perspective on the concept of ‘rewilding’ where bewilderment is proposed as a way to recognize the intrinsic entanglements between humans and nature that are often overlooked in initial nominations and subsequent climate change mitigation strategies including the intangible value of natural heritage (Dorfman, 2012), and a contemporary archaeology perspective of the materiality and maintenance of arctic climate and animal monitoring stations. Finally, through the lens of landscape phenomenology, this project aims to highlight how nature/culture entanglements can inspire alternate forms of thinking about how natural landscapes are understood and encountered as heritage—not purely focused on our fear of loss, but on a wider awareness and acceptance of the forces of change.


Dorfman, E. (2012). Intangible Natural Heritage: New Perspectives on Natural Objects. Routledge.

IPCC. (2021). IPCC Sixth Assessment Report. Available at: https://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar6/wg1/, accessed 12 August 2021.

Nyman, S. (2018). Kebnekaises sydtopp inte längre Sveriges högsta punkt. Stockholm University. Available at: https://www.su.se/forskning/kebnekaises-sydtopp-inte-längre-sveriges-högsta-punkt-1.394956, accessed 12 August 2021.

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