A disturbing new report shows that 1.3 million square miles of the Earth's wilderness has been lost since the 1990s — an area half the size of Australia. The researchers say this "catastrophic loss" highlights the need for an international agreement to protect our planet's invaluable forests.
Deforestation and subsequent development in Bolivia. (Image: NASA Scientific Visualisation Studios)
Our planet has lost a tenth of its global wilderness in just two decades, according to a new Current Biology study authored by researchers from the University of Queensland. In a statement, lead researcher James Watson described his team's findings as "staggering and very saddening," adding that the findings "underscore an immediate need for international policies to recognise the value of wilderness and to address the unprecedented threats it faces." Watson says we have about 20 years to "turn this around."
No doubt, further losses to the Earth's forests could prove disastrous. Wilderness areas perform a number of important functions, such as providing fresh water, food, and medicine. Forests are gigantic carbon sinks, sucking up greenhouse gasses and expelling precious oxygen. They also stave off the effects of erosion, reduce extreme weather, and even work to support many of the planet's most politically and economically marginalized communities. But as Watson points out, our forests are "completely ignored in environmental policy."
For the new study, the researchers mapped wilderness areas around the globe, with "wilderness" being defined as an area with biologically and ecologically intact landscapes free from significant human disturbance. The updated map shows that 11.62 million square miles (30.1 million square kilometers) still remain as wilderness, which is approximately 20 per cent of the world's land area. The majority of these areas are in North America, North Asia, North Africa, and Australia.
But then the researchers compared their new map to one produced by a similar method back in 1993. The researchers saw that about 1.3 million square miles (3.3 million square kilometers) of wilderness has been lost since the early 1990s, with a 30 per cent loss of wilderness in South America, and a 14 per cent loss in Africa.
"You cannot restore wilderness. Once it is gone, the ecological process that underpins these ecosystems are gone, and it never comes back to the state it was," said Watson. "If we don't act soon, it will be all gone, and this is a disaster for conservation, for climate change, and for some of the most vulnerable human communities on the planet."
Leading drivers of deforestation include the conversion of wooded areas to farms, ranches, and urban use, but forest management policies and environmental laws are failing to prevent developers from taking these efforts too far. Tropical forests are currently experiencing the worst levels of deforestation, yet they're home to more than half of the planet's land and plant species.
Deforestation is clearly a serious problem, but it's not immediately obvious how or if a global consensus can be reached on the matter. Just look at how difficult it's proving to get an international agreement on climate change — a crisis that's staring us right in the face.