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.