by Nick Carne
The polar regions
most of the wilderness areas
remaining in the world.
Jasmine, Watson et al
reveals very few
New research shows just how quickly the world's last wilderness
areas are disappearing.
An international team, led by Australia's University of
Queensland (UQ), has just mapped (Temporally
Inter-comparable Maps of Terrestrial Wilderness and the Last of the
Wild) intact ocean ecosystems, complementing its 2016
project charting remaining terrestrial wilderness.
Together they provide the first global picture of how our impact has
"A century ago, only
15% of the Earth's surface was used by humans to grow crops and
raise livestock," says James Watson, from UQ's School of Earth
and Environmental Sciences.
"Today, more than 77% of land - excluding Antarctica - and 87%
per cent of the ocean has been modified by the direct effects of
"It might be hard to believe, but between 1993 and 2009, an area
of terrestrial wilderness larger than India - a staggering 3.3
million square kilometers - was lost to human settlement,
farming, mining and other pressures.
"And in the ocean, the only regions that are free of industrial
fishing, pollution and shipping are almost completely confined
to the polar regions."
In a commentary (Protect
the Last of the Wild) published in the journal Nature,
James Watson and colleagues argue that explicit international
conservation targets are critically needed.
"Numerous studies are
revealing that Earth's remaining wilderness areas are
increasingly important buffers against the effects of climate
change and other human impacts," they write.
"But, so far, the contribution of intact ecosystems has not been
an explicit target in any international policy framework, such
as the United Nations' Strategic Plan for Biodiversity or the
Paris climate agreement.
"This must change if we are to prevent Earth's intact ecosystems
from disappearing completely."
To map Earth's remaining
terrestrial wilderness, the researchers used the best available data
from 2009 on eight indicators of human pressures at a resolution of
one square kilometer:
crop lands, pasture lands, population density, night-time
lights, railways, major roadways and navigable waterways.
For the more recent
mapping of intact ocean ecosystems, they used 2013 data on fishing,
industrial shipping and fertilizer run-off, among 16 other
In both cases they identified wilderness land or ocean areas as
those that were free of human pressures, with a contiguous area of
more than 10,000 square kilometers on land.
The maps exclude
Antarctica because it is off limits
to direct resource exploitation such as mining, and the indirect
effects of human activities there are harder to measure.
But the researchers say
it is a crucial wilderness area that is urgently in need of
isolation and extreme conditions have prevented the levels of
degradation experienced elsewhere," they write.
species, pollution, increased human activity and, above all,
climate change are threatening
its unique biodiversity and ability to regulate the global