Research

World's last wilderness areas may vanish

World's last wilderness areas may vanish

Only 23 percent of the world's dry land remained as wilderness.

The study, led by researchers from the University of Queensland in Australia and the Wildlife Conservation Society in NY, paints the first global picture of the threat to the world's remaining wildernesses - and the image is bleak.

The paper comes after the team of scientists produced data in 2016 that charted the planet's remaining terrestrial wilderness and in 2018 examined which parts of the world's oceans remained free from the damaging impacts of human activity.

The researchers found that more than 77 percent of land, excluding Antarctica, and about 87 percent of the ocean has undergone changes linked to human activity.

A wilderness area is a region that's not been strongly affected by human activity. Regardless of where they are - from the lowland rainforests of Papua New Guinea, to the high taiga forests of Russia's Arctic, to the vast deserts of inland Australia, to the great mixing zones of the Pacific, Antarctic and Indian Oceans - these areas are the last strongholds for endangered species, and perform vital functions such as storing carbon, and buffering us against the effects of climate change. (3,861 sq. mi.). The survey excludes Antarctica and the open seas, but the authors note that marine regions "free of industrial fishing, pollution and shipping are nearly completely confined to the polar regions".

More than 70% of remaining wilderness is in just five countries: Australia, Russia, Canada, the United States (Alaska), and Brazil. In most countries, wilderness is not formally defined, mapped or protected.

Humanity's relentless spread across the face of the Earth has led to a dramatic decline in the quantity and quality of wilderness areas. "There is nothing to hold nations, industry, society or communities to account for long-term conservation", said James R. Allan from University of Queensland.

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"We need the immediate establishment of bold wilderness targets - specifically those aimed at conserving biodiversity, avoiding unsafe climate change and achieving sustainable development", said Allan.

"We can not afford to lose more", he said.

Astonishingly, 94 percent of that space is confined to 20 countries, while the top five (Russia, Canada, Australia, the USA, and Brazil - in that order) possess 70 percent of the world's remaining wilderness.

As well as being havens for biodiversity, wildernesses such as the boreal forest in northern Canada - which acts as a carbon sink and which is protected by federal law - form mankind's frontline protection against runaway climate change.

"One take on the list is that alarm bells go off", said Watson. Researchers urges authorities to better conserve these wilderness areas.

A diverse set of approaches must be embraced, and the private sector must work with governments so that industry protects, rather than harms, wilderness areas.

The authors recommend imposing global targets within existing frameworks to protect these remaining ecosystems, saying "Already we have lost so much". Particularly, worldwide accountability is necessary, he argues.


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