Saturday, November 03, 2018

The Extinction of Wilderness

By Emily Atkin
November 1, 2018

In 2016, an international team of scientists set out to determine how much of the earth’s land is still wild. They were alarmed at what they found: Deserts, grasslands, tropical and boreal forests are all rapidly disappearing. In the last two decades, 10 percent of terrestrial wilderness has been replaced by buildings, farmland, and other development. Only 23 percent of all land on the planet remains relatively untouched.

The ocean is in an even more dire state. In a study published this summer, a research team made up of some of the same scientists found that only 13 percent of the ocean can be classified as marine wilderness. The rest has been altered by anthropogenic stressors, such as industrial fishing, pollution, and shipping.

The ocean research was limited by a lack of historical data, so it’s unknown how quickly marine wilderness has declined in the last 20 years. But the two papers make one thing clear: Humans are threatening a complete takeover of both the land and the sea. After climate change, it’s the most urgent environmental crisis of our time.

On Wednesday, the scientists led by Australia’s University of Queensland attempted to explain why the impending disappearance of wild places is so dire. “Numerous studies are starting to reveal that Earth’s most intact ecosystems have all sorts of functions that are becoming increasingly crucial,” they wrote in the prestigious journal Nature.


Speaking of climate change, untouched places also happen to be humanity’s biggest shield against the phenomenon. Tropical and boreal forests are carbon sinks: They absorb up to 40 percent of the carbon dioxide we emit into the atmosphere, thereby preventing it from causing rapid warming of the planet. Human development within these forests not only limits their ability to provide this critical function; it creates more carbon emissions by replacing the trees with high-emitting farming and logging operations.

Wild seagrass meadows provide a similar carbon-absorbing function in the ocean—that is, until they’re affected by pollution. When that happens, they “switch from being carbon sinks to major carbon sources,” the scientists wrote. Wild places can protect communities from extreme weather, too. “Simulations of tsunamis, for instance, indicate that healthy coral reefs provide coastlines with at least twice as much protection as highly degraded ones.”


“There is a connection between loss of the natural environment and human health,” WWF’s chief executive Carter Roberts told the Washington Post. “Where does our food come from? Where does our water come?”


No comments:

Post a Comment