One-Tenth of the World’s Wilderness Has Been Destroyed in Two Decades, Study Says

By Ada Carr

In just two decades, humankind has wiped out a tenth of the Earth’s wilderness, according to a new study.

A research team led by University of Queensland associate professor James Watson found that an estimated 3.3 million square kilometers have been lost since the early 1990s, with the most loss occurring in South America and Africa.

The researchers claim this massive dissipation of wilderness is due to a lack of protection in conservation policies. While much attention has been paid to the extinction of species, the large-scale loss of entire ecosystems has gone largely unnoticed. 

“The findings underscore an immediate need for international policies to recognize the value of wilderness and to address the unprecedented threats it faces,” Watson said in a release on the study. “Globally important wilderness areas are completely ignored in environmental policy, despite being strongholds for endangered biodiversity, for buffering and regulating local climates and for supporting many of the world’s most politically and economically marginalized communities.”

Defining “wilderness” as biologically and ecologically intact landscapes free of significant human disturbance, the researchers drew their conclusions by examining the human footprint on the planet through the use of maps and data on manmade adaptations, such as crop lands, railways and roadways, Science reports. 

By comparing the map to one of the same means produced in the 1990s, Watson and his team discovered the staggering discrepancy.

“The amount of wilderness loss in just two decades is staggering and very saddening,” said Watson. “We need to recognize that wilderness is being dramatically lost and that without proactive global interventions, we could lose the last jewels in nature’s crown.”

(Kendall Jones and James Allen)

The researchers assert that this loss of wilderness will have serious consequences when it comes to helping the planet cope with climate change. As an example, they say the total stock of terrestrial ecosystem carbon is greater than that of oil, coal, gas and the atmosphere. A large amount of that carbon is found in the wilderness areas of the tropics and boreal region.

They estimate that 32 percent of the Earth’s total stock of forest biomass carbon is stored in the boreal forests. The Amazon holds nearly 38 percent of the carbon found in the tropics’ vegetation. Protecting these areas would make a significant contribution when it comes to stabilizing the atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide.

“You cannot restore wilderness,” said Watson. “Once it is gone, the ecological process that underpins these ecosystems are gone, and it never comes back to the state it was. The only option is to proactively protect what is left.”

Watson noted if humans do not act soon, the consequences will be disastrous for conservation, climate change and several vulnerable communities.

“We have a duty to act for our children and their children.”

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