DATE: October 31, 2018
SNIP: A century ago, only 15% of Earth’s surface was used to grow crops and raise livestock. Today, more than 77% of land (excluding Antarctica) and 87% of the ocean has been modified by the direct effects of human activities.
Between 1993 and 2009, an area of terrestrial wilderness larger than India — a staggering 3.3 million square kilometres — was lost to human settlement, farming, mining and other pressures. In the ocean, areas that are free of industrial fishing, pollution and shipping are almost completely confined to the polar regions.
Some conservationists contend that particular areas in fragmented and otherwise-degraded ecosystems are more important than undisturbed ecosystems. Fragmented areas might provide key services, such as tourism revenue and benefits to human health, or be rich in threatened biodiversity. Yet numerous studies are starting to reveal that Earth’s most intact ecosystems have all sorts of functions that are becoming increasingly crucial.
Wilderness areas are now the only places that contain mixes of species at near-natural levels of abundance. They are also the only areas supporting the ecological processes that sustain biodiversity over evolutionary timescales. As such, they are important reservoirs of genetic information, and act as reference areas for efforts to re-wild degraded land and seascapes.
Various analyses reveal that wilderness areas provide increasingly important refuges for species that are declining in landscapes dominated by people11. In the seas, they are the last regions that still contain viable populations of top predators, such as tuna, marlins and sharks.
Safeguarding intact ecosystems is also key to mitigating the effects of climate change, which are making the refuge function of wilderness areas especially important.
Wild places are facing the same extinction crisis as species. Similarly to species extinction, the erosion of the wilderness is essentially irreversible. Research has shown that the first impacts of industry on wilderness areas are the most damaging. And once it has been eroded, an intact ecosystem and its many values can never be fully restored.