Wilderness Areas Are Disappearing At Drastic Rates

Because you needed something else to worry about on top of the upcoming presidential election and whether Britney Spears is happy, a study published in Current Biology writes that a 10th of the world's wilderness has been lost since the early '90s, despite conservation efforts across the globe.

Humans have taken over most of the globe at this point, but swaths of untouched land still exist. According to the National Park Service, a wilderness area is a place "where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain." In other words, they're areas undeveloped by humans and intended to stay that way; the Park Service notes that the wildernesses receive the highest level of conservation protection in the United States. Needless to say, these lands are hugely important ecologically, providing homes for many endangered species and regulating local climates.

Unfortunately, they're shrinking at a drastic rate. In a study published in early September, researchers from the University of Queensland in Australia and the Wildlife Conservation Society in New York write that the past two decades have seen a "catastrophic decline" in wilderness areas, defined in the study as "biologically and ecologically largely intact landscapes that are mostly free of human disturbance," around the world.

According to Science Daily, researchers claim that unlike species endangerment, wilderness areas are understudied in conservation efforts by virtue of their remoteness. To learn more about these areas, they compared maps of global wilderness areas in the '90s to ones they created using similar methods today, and the news isn't great. The study showed that while approximately 30 million square kilometers of wilderness remain today, more than three million square kilometers have been destroyed since the early '90s — nearly a 10 percent decrease. The Amazon basin experienced the highest losses, with more than 30 percent of its area wiped out despite efforts to combat deforestation.

In fact, researchers found that this trend could be seen around the world. Although conservation efforts do work — giant pandas were removed from the endangered species list just last week — the study notes a disparity between wilderness loss and the measures taken to protect them. Despite an overall increase in the latter, especially since the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, conservation policies don't appear to be keeping up with the decline: In their paper, researchers pointed out that 2.5 million square kilometers of wilderness areas were newly protected, but 3.3 million square kilometers were destroyed.

"The amount of wilderness loss in just two decades is staggering. ... The only option is to proactively protect what is left," said Dr. Oscar Venter of the University of Northern British Colombia, according to Science Daily.


Aside from housing endangered species and storing huge amounts of carbon, thereby preventing it from becoming a "greenhouse" gas, researcher Dr. James Watson pointed out that wilderness areas are home to some of the world's "most politically and economically marginalized [human] communities." Whether you live tucked away in the Amazon basin or among the lights of New York City, environment conservation affects everyone — maybe it's time to focus less on the state of the country and more on the state of the planet as a whole.

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