New UNESCO programme recognises the UK’s seven ‘Global Geoparks’

Aesha Head Papa Stour. Copyright Shetland Geotours.

UNESCO – the United Nations Organisation for Education, Science and Culture – has announced a new programme, which creates “UNESCO Global Geoparks.” This is the first new UNESCO designation of its kind to be established in over 40 years and puts Global Geoparks alongside UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites. Previously operating with the informal support of UNESCO, the status of Global Geoparks will now be formally recognised under the new programme.

The UK is home to seven UNESCO Global Geoparks, stretching from the English Riviera in the South to Geopark Shetland in the North, and including two in Wales and a cross-border UNESCO Global Geopark shared by Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. The UK sites are part of a growing international network of Global Geoparks – areas of outstanding geological interest which use their unique geology to drive community development.

All of the UK’s UNESCO Global Geoparks have internationally significant geology. But what sets UNESCO Global Geoparks apart is that they are locally-led partnerships that work to support sustainable economic development of the area, primarily through geological and eco-tourism, with activities such as developing geotrails and projects to bring geology to life for people and holding festivals and events. They also organise education projects in schools and communities.

The UK’s UNESCO Global Geoparks have already brought millions of pounds of investment to their local areas, generating an estimated £8.7 million from April 2014 to March 2015 through their involvement with the Global Geoparks Network according to a new study conducted by the UK National Commission for UNESCO, that is due to be released later this year. The award of the UNESCO brand is expected to further enhance their work, helping to create new international funding and partnership opportunities, attract national and international visitors, and raise awareness of the UK’s unique geological heritage.

The UK government – through the UK Permanent Delegation to UNESCO, UK National Commission for UNESCO and the UK Global Geoparks Forum in partnership with other member states – helped to lead the process for Global Geoparks to become a formal UNESCO designation.


Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment and Rural Affairs, Rory Stewart MP said:

“This is the most fantastic news. It gives us a great international profile. Connecting our geological heritage and literally our bedrock with our community and economy is a very exciting opportunity. The work Geoparks do locally, and their new UNESCO status, could inspire people for years to come.”

VisitBritain Chief Executive Sally Balcombe said:

This is exciting news and a real accolade for the seven Global Geoparks, as well as the communities who sustain them. The United Kingdom is rich in natural beauty and VisitBritain works hard to showcase the diversity and accessibility of our countryside and coast to inspire international visitors to explore further than well-trodden paths. This year we launched our Countryside is GREAT campaign to increase international visits across all our nations and regions, and the breadth and beauty of the Geoparks will provide significant opportunities for visitors to explore the UK’s incredible geological heritage and contribute to local economies.”

Geologist and broadcaster Professor Iain Stewart who is Director, Sustainable Earth Institute at Plymouth University said:

“I’m a huge fan of the Geoparks. They are a wonderful natural showcase for how the rocks underfoot continue to shape our economies and our cultures. We have them scattered across the UK and Ireland, a testament to the breadth of fantastic geology we have beneath our backyards and the important role they play as local gateways to connect with ordinary people about how our planet works and how they should care about what is happening to it”.

UK National Commission for UNESCO’s Natural Sciences Director, Dr. Beth Taylor said:

The UK’s seven UNESCO Global Geoparks are a national treasure, not just in terms of their geological interest but the enthusiasm and dedication of their local champions who work so hard to maintain them and to make the most of the educational and economic opportunities they offer.  They are a great illustration of local communities working very effectively in some of the most remote and beautiful areas of the UK. But I appreciate that they are also a bit of a national secret, not widely recognised by visitors or even by many of those who live within their boundaries.  I hope that the UNESCO brand will give our Global Geoparks the same recognition factor as World Heritage Sites – a visible guarantee of their international significance and an assurance that they are great places to visit and explore.”

The new designation was approved at the 38th Session of the UNESCO General Conference in Paris on 17 November.

The UK’s UNESCO Global Geoparks and the UK National Commission for UNESCO plan to mark the announcement with a series of community-focused events during European Geoparks Week in May 2016 and at the International Global Geopark Conference: Due to take place in the English Riviera in September 2016, this will become the first UNESCO Global Geoparks Conference.

Chair of UK Global Geoparks Forum Melanie Border said:

“This incredible recognition reflects the dedication and commitment of all of the UNESCO Global Geopark communities in the UK and around the world.  It is about geology, but it’s not just about the rocks but about how we use that geology to make a difference to life locally, economically and socially. We are feeling very proud of this formal UNESCO recognition and looking forward to making the most of the opportunities it presents”.


  • 357,000 people live in a Geopark in the UK, and the Geoparks receive over 17.5 million visitors each year. Becoming a formal UNESCO programme is expected to raise the profile of the Geoparks among visitors and residents alike, encouraging them to play a more active role in looking after their shared, geological heritage and gain a greater understanding of the key issues and challenges facing society in the context of our dynamic planet.
  • The UK’s Global Geoparks generated an estimated £8.7 million from April 2014 to March 2015 through their involvement with the Global Geoparks Network. Being able to leverage the UNESCO brand and its global network is expected to enhance this sum, according to a new study undertaken by the UK National Commission for UNESCO that will be released in December.
  • The UK is due to host the International Global Geoparks Conference in September 2016. With the expected 800 delegates descending on the sea-side region of the English Riviera over five days, the conference is expected to bring over £1.6 million in visitor spend to the local economy.
  • Geoparks are first and foremost about communities and people, not just geology
  • There are seven Global Geoparks in the UK. These are:
    • English Riviera: Home to the Kents Cavern jawbone, the oldest modern human fossil in North West Europe and situated within the stunning, rolling hills of South Devon, Torbay’s geology has created a beautiful coastline, linking the rich diversity of the landscape with its wildlife, people and culture.
    • Fforest Fawr: Fforest Fawr – (Welsh for the ‘Great Forest ) – is a swathe of upland country which forms the western half of the Brecon Beacons National Park. It is a cracked and crumpled layer-cake of rocks, 480 million years in the making, a landscape sculpted by ice then transformed by man and a witness to the birth of the Industrial Revolution
    • Geopark Shetland: From the highest sheer cliffs in Britain to the best ‘hands on’ exposure of the Great Glen Fault, Shetland is packed with an incredibly varied geology spanning almost 3 billion years. Where else can you walk on an ancient ocean floor, explore an extinct volcano and stroll across shifting sands in the space of a day?
    • GeoMon: The tectonic island of Anglesey includes more than a hundred different rock types and the oldest fossils in England or Wales within 1,800 million years of Earth’s history., GeoMon is the UK’s most geologically diverse Global Geopark. Such is the variety of shapes and types of rock, that visitors and locals alike cannot but marvel at the magnificent colours and structures visible around the coast of the Welsh Global Geopark.
    • Marble Arch Caves: Ranging from rugged uplands, lakes and forests through to gently rolling drumlins, the landscapes of the Global Geopark represent a complex Earth history dating back as far as 895 million years. With evidence of mountain building and destruction; searing hot deserts and warm tropical oceans; and of icy wastelands and water-worn caverns, the rocks and landscapes of the Global Geopark are nothing short of amazing.
    • North Pennines: The North Pennines landscape has been 500 million years in the making and reveals a story of tropical seas, vast deltas and deserts, huge ice sheets and continents on the move, alongside a world class mineral and mining heritage. In recognition of its special qualities, the North Pennines has been designated as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), as well as a European and Global Geopark – highlighting its globally important Earth heritage.
    • North West Highlands: Located in the far north of the Scottish Highlands, the Global Geopark is home to the oldest rocks in the UK. Their Lewisian gneiss is over 3 billion years old! The eastern boundary of the Global Geopark extends beyond the settlement of Durness and Loch Eriboll to follow the Moine Thrust Zone, an internationally significant geological structure that helped 19th century geologists determine how the world’s great mountain ranges were formed.