We've Destroyed One-Tenth of Earth's Wilderness in the Last 20 Years

wilderness
Areas in red show wilderness area destroyed since the 1990s; areas in green remain. James Watson et al / CURRENT BIOLOGY

In the past 20 years, humans have destroyed 10 percent of the world's wilderness, an area that's more than twice the size of Alaska.

It's the first quantitative measure of the world's wilderness and how much has been lost, and many scientists are surprised by the degree of decline.

This is shocking, and clearly "not enough has been done to protect wilderness," says Hugh Possingham, a researcher with Australia's University of Queensland, who wasn't involved in the paper, published September 8 in the journal Current Biology.

The study found that the largest losses of wilderness have taken place in the Amazon and central Africa, which have declined by 30 percent and 14 percent, respectively. The loss in the Amazon is especially staggering—since the 1990s, an area nearly the size of France has been logged, burned or otherwise developed.

"If this keeps happening, we'll lose many [priceless] places," says James Watson, the study's lead author, with the University of Queensland and the Wildlife Conservation Society in New York.

Wild lands certainly remain on the Earth, but they're imperiled, Watson says. The team found that 23 percent of the land areas (excluding rock- and ice-covered landscapes like Antarctica) are composed of wilderness. These wilderness are mostly found in North America, North Asia, North Africa and Australia.

Wilderness areas are defined as undisturbed regions that are at least 3,900 square miles in size, larger than the state of Delaware.

While the amount of protected land has doubled in the past 20 years, this number needs to increase much more, as it's being greatly outpaced by the rate of destruction, Watson says.

Wilderness is vital for preserving biodiversity and large animals like giraffes, elephants, lions and the like. They also account for a large percentage of the world's carbon stores, and are disproportionately important for limiting climate change, Watson says. For example, nearly one-third of the world's forest biomass is contained in the boreal forests of North America and Russia, much of which is still wilderness; and the Amazon accounts for 38 percent of the world total.

The destruction of these places can have huge impacts. For instance, human-started fires in Borneo and Sumatra in 1997 released massive quantities of carbon, equivalent to 10 percent of all annual anthropogenic emissions.

Often overlooked is the fact that many wildernesses, like those in Australia, are home to some of "the most marginalized people on Earth," Watson says, like Aborigines. These indigenous people generally do not heavily disturb the environment and depend on it for survival, he adds.

Watson say he hopes this paper starts a conversation on protecting wilderness, which to date has been relatively ignored. "The truth is, not much is being done, and it's not talked about." And that needs to change, he says.

We've Destroyed One-Tenth of Earth's Wilderness in the Last 20 Years | Tech & Science