Science

"Horror story" paper reveals just 23 percent of Earth's landmass survives as wilderness

"Horror story" paper reveals j...
94 percent of the world's marine and terrestrial wilderness regions belong to just 20 nations
94 percent of the world's marine and terrestrial wilderness regions belong to just 20 nations
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94 percent of the world's marine and terrestrial wilderness regions belong to just 20 nations
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94 percent of the world's marine and terrestrial wilderness regions belong to just 20 nations

According to the results of a new paper, only 23 percent of our planet's landmass exists in a near natural state of wilderness, with the rest having been directly degraded by human activities. Preserving the remaining wilderness regions could be a vital factor in battling climate change and safeguarding our species' well-being.

Humanity's relentless spread across the face of the Earth has led to a dramatic decline in the quantity and quality of wilderness areas. These natural havens play a number of vital roles.

Wilderness-dominated regions are responsible for capturing significant amounts of carbon dioxide. The abundance of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is one of the driving factors of global warming.

Global warming in turn presents many threats, both to the future prosperity of humanity, and to the animals that we so often fail to co-exist with. The dangers include rising sea-levels, food shortages, water shortages, and an increase in the strength and occurrence of extreme weather events. The authors of the new paper believe that the preservation of these carbon-trapping environments is a key step in mitigating the effects of climate change.

Wilderness areas also provide a vital refuge for species whose environment has suffered as a result of human settlement, often maintaining a near-natural mix and abundance of animals.

To reach their conclusion, the researchers constructed a comprehensive global map of Earth's remaining terrestrial and ocean wilderness areas. The data used in the terrestrial map was collected in 2009, and included information on eight indicators of human pressure on the environment, including population density, transport infrastructure, and whether the land was used to grow crops.

The information used to compile the ocean maps was collected in 2013, and included data on fishing, industrial shipping, and 14 other indicators of human impact on the environment.

For the purposes of the paper, an area of land was considered wilderness if it covered 10,000 km2, and based on the indicators, was relatively free of human pressures. This did not mean that the areas were uninhabited by humans. Millions of indigenous people call these wildernesses their home, and rely on it to maintain their way of life.

The researchers discovered that 77 percent of Earth's landmass, and 87 percent of its oceans had been modified by the direct effects of human activity. Only 23 percent of the world's dry land remained as wilderness.

The international team that constructed the maps excluded Antarctica for the duel reasons that it is not open to direct resource exploitation, and it is much more difficult to assess the indirect effects of human activities.

"These results are nothing short of a horror story for the planet's last wild places. The loss of wilderness must be treated in the same way we treat extinction," said the paper's lead author James Watson, of the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and the University of Queensland. "There is no reversing once the first cut enters. The decision is forever."

A study published in August this year in the journal Earth System Dynamics warned that humanity must take immediate and extreme action if it is to avoid the most devastating effects of climate change. According to the conservation scientists behind the new research, protecting wilderness regions, which are at least twice as effective at storing carbon dioxide than areas degraded by human contact, would be of significant help.

The authors of the new paper believe that Earth's remaining wildernesses can be protected if their importance is recognized in existing international frameworks, such as the Paris Agreement.

The scientists are calling for the establishment of global targets aimed at conserving biodiversity and avoiding dangerous climate change. In the newly-published paper, they urge the participants of the upcoming Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) to include a mandated target for wilderness conservation, which would see the identification and protection of all remaining intact ecosystems.

The team identified five "mega wilderness" nations – the United States, Russia, Canada, Australia and Brazil – that were estimated to contain about 70 percent of Earth's remaining wilderness, and so will be largely responsible for deciding the fate of Earth's remaining wildernesses.

"Wilderness will only be secured globally if these nations take a leadership role. Right now, across the board, this type of leadership is missing," said John Robinson, WCS Executive Vice President for Global Conservation at WCS, and a co-author of the paper. "Already we have lost so much. We must grasp these opportunities to secure the wilderness before it disappears forever."

The paper has been published in the journal Nature.

Source: Wildlife Conservation Society

8 comments
socalboomer
I wanted to see the actual data and hopefully a map but trying to download the paper from the WCS.org source got me a "DOI" link that nothing seems to know what to do with. It's not a Department of Interior resource or map - it's supposed to be a WCS paper.
PaleDale
Dont look to Australia for this, the government has proven time and time again that they dont care about the environment or climate change. Oh they pretend to care but in reality they only care about keeping their jobs and to do that that they need to keep the "tradies" happy so they continue to approve massive open cut coal mines and cry when the global demand for coal drops..... Also plenty of illegal land clearing happens and those people just get a slap on the wrist instead being made to replant the trees they just bulldozed. More and more good fertile bush land is being turned into suburbs while other land is turning into desert due to climate change.
Grumpyrelic
Funny... They didn't seem to include the return to wilderness in the downtown major cities. Don't think its wild there? try wearing a Rolex watch and carrying a Nikon at 11:00 PM in downtown Detroit.
owlbeyou
This news goes hand-in-hand with the recent announcement of the Earth having lost 60% of its wildlife since 1970. It is very troubling indeed and must be dealt with by more than 'saving the wilderness that is left'. As long as humanity wants much more than it needs, which is basically a Western consumer culture dilemma, our existence will continue to get backed in to a corner. Mother Nature has amazing powers of recovery, but if we keep indulging ourselves with all manner of consumption, even she will have her limits...and we will suffer.
Observer101
No surprise.... there are too many people in the world, and "growing"... When someone suggests BIRTH CONTROL, (I'm not talking about abortions) the liberals get all upset. Yet, most places in the world "rewards" people for having more children. That should be reversed, and people should be penalized (think TAXING at a higher rate) for having more than one child per couple. The overpopulation of the world has got to be reversed...
Douglas Bennett Rogers
We need a whole lot of O'neill cylinders!
eMacPaul
77% of land mass may have been *impacted* by humans, but I think it's a stretch to say it's necessarily been "degraded".
Si77
These changes have been going on for a long time and probably most of the changes are related to food production. Since plants grow at least 15% faster with current level of CO2, if we didn’t have the CO2 even more land would use for agriculture. The main issue isn’t climate change, it’s meat production. This is because meat production is very inefficient and use is considerably more land and resources then other food. All those carnivores who feel bad about this should stop eating meat!!!!