Biomes shrink as wilderness declines

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One-tenth of global wilderness has been lost since the 1990s, a new study in the journal Current Biology reported. With the total amount of wilderness lost rivaling an area twice the size of Alaska, researchers in the study stressed the urgency of the decline and posited various strategies for global communities to begin protecting the remaining areas of wilderness.

In order to measure the decline, researchers mapped out wilderness areas across the Earth and compared the results to a map of wilderness from the 1990s produced in the same way.

Wilderness across the globe, defined by the researchers as “biologically and ecologically intact landscapes free of any significant human disturbance,” was shown to have decreased in the 20-year period by 3.3 million kilometers-squared.

Regions in Africa and South America were impacted the most by wilderness decline, with South America suffering the largest percentage of loss with a 30 percent decline in wilderness and Africa suffering a 14 percent loss.

Of the 14 biomes found on Earth, three tropical biomes—tropical and subtropical coniferous forests, mangroves and tropical and subtropical dry broadleaf forests—have no significant wilderness area remaining on the planet.

“Globally important wilderness areas—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—are completely ignored in environmental policy,” said Dr. James Watson, an associate professor at the University of Queensland in Australia and one of the co-authors of the study.

Three biomes have been lost to the current wilderness decline, including mangroves.

Though much has been done to improve the policy regarding endangered animal species, little has been done to research the wilderness areas they may migrate through or inhabit.

With 12 percent of endangered mammal species’ territories overlapping with a large portion of globally significant wilderness areas, the habitats and ecosystems lost for these species increase the species’ risk of extinction. Species that rely on a certain ecosystem to migrate, or are already trying to cohabitate with humanity, may feel the loss of the wilderness areas even more than their hardier or more remote counterparts. The effects of the loss of entire ecosystems under the current rate of wilderness decimation is something that, Watson believes, is currently understudied.

“The amount of wilderness loss in just two decades is staggering,” said Dr. Oscar Venter, an associate professor from the University of Northern British Colombia and a co-author of the study. “We need to recognize that wilderness areas, which we’ve foolishly considered to be de-facto protected due to their remoteness, is actually being dramatically lost around the world.”

The study’s authors call upon policymakers to create legislation that would protect these tracts of wilderness. The lack of policy on a global level, the authors argue, makes it extremely difficult for any meaningful work to be done to protect global wilderness areas.

The study further outlines possible plans for meaningful change to the current wilderness policy, most notably the need for an organized national wilderness movement, whose momentum could propel global policymakers, such as the United Nations, to push for a more widespread initiative.

Another suggested project is for a concerted effort to be undertaken to halt wilderness destruction before it even begins in sites where it is projected to occur in the future.