Much of the earth is still wild, but threatened by fragmentation

October 21, 2019

Half of the Earth's land surface not covered with ice remains relatively wild - but many of these "low human-impact" areas are broken into small, isolated pieces, threatening their future.

Those are among the findings of a massive inventory undertaken in 2017 and 2018 by the National Geographic Society and released in early October. The study concludes that despite widespread environmental damage inflicted by human development (e.g. cities and farms), there's still an opportunity to protect vast, relatively wild regions of the Earth for the benefit of people and other living species.

"It's not too late to aim high," said lead author Andrew Jacobson, a geographic information systems professor at Catawba College in North Carolina. Jacobson led a team of researchers using satellite-based mapping techniques to measure human impacts across the globe and to identify areas of lowest human pressure and highest potential for saving intact habitat.

Most of the low impact areas identified by the survey were in the remote boreal forests of northern Canada and Russia, in the highlands of Central Asia, especially Tibet and Mongolia, in the deserts of North Africa and Australia, and in the tropical rain forests of the Amazon Basin of South America.

"This is good news for the planet," said Jacobson, a scientific and geo-spatial advisor to the Society. "The findings here suggest that roughly half of the ice-free land is still relatively less altered by humans, which leaves open the possibility of expanding the global network of protected areas and building bigger and more connected habitats for species."

Fragmentation and isolation of wild places

The study focused not only on the location of low human-impact areas but also on their sizes and shapes. Here, the findings were more sobering, showing that many low-impact zones are fragmented into small, isolated pieces, separated either by natural features (water, rocks, ice) or increasingly by human development.

Jason Riggio, a conservation scientist at UC Davis and a co-author of the report, noted the fragility of these fragments. "Half of all segments located in temperate forests, dry tropical forests or tropical conifer forests were within one mile of human disturbance" he said.

Fragmentation can devastate wildlife populations. Animals are cut off from potential mates, food supplies and migration patterns, and they are increasingly exposed to pesticides and other causes of mortality such as roads. Extinction is the eventual result.

"The findings demonstrate that our most diverse systems are among the most threatened and even the low-impact areas, which are often less biologically diverse, are fragmented. If we wish to meet global climate targets and sustainable development goals while averting an extinction crisis, we must encourage greater protection of our remaining natural ecosystems," said Jonathan Baillie, the National Geographic Society's executive vice president and chief scientist. Baillie, along with the Society's geographer, Alex Tait, were the chief advisors and co-authors on the ground-breaking report.

The study, "Global areas of low human impact ('Low Impact Areas') and fragmentation of the natural world," was a first of its kind. Never before had habitat loss and the splintering of habitats into small, isolated fragments been measured simultaneously across the planet while also being compared to natural baseline data, according to the Society.

"This paper shows that it's late in the game, but not too late," Jacobson said. "We can still greatly increase the extent of the world's protected areas, but we must act quickly. Pressures are mounting, and habitat loss and fragmentation are rapidly eroding natural systems and the diversity of species they contain."
-end-


University of California - Davis

Related Protected Areas Articles from Brightsurf:

Protected areas help waterbirds adapt to climate change
Climate change pushes species distribution areas northward. However, the expansion of species ranges is not self-evident due to e.g. habitat degradation and unsustainable harvesting caused by human activities.

Scientists reveal urgent solutions for boosting Protected Areas effectiveness
New research published today in Nature identifies the actions needed from governments, private entities, and conservation organisations to boost the effectiveness of Protected Areas and other area-based conservation efforts in protecting biodiversity and providing benefits to people.

More than 90% of protected areas are disconnected
Ongoing land clearing for agriculture, mining and urbanisation is isolating and disconnecting Earth's protected natural areas from each other, a new study shows.

Protected areas can 'double' imperilled species populations
A University of Queensland-led research team has revealed that many endangered mammal species are dependent on protected areas, and would likely vanish without them.

Are protected areas effective at maintaining large carnivore populations?
A recent study, led by the University of Helsinki, used a novel combination of statistical methods and an exceptional data set collected by hunters to assess the role of protected areas for carnivore conservation in Finland.

Protected areas worldwide at risk of invasive species
Protected areas across the globe are effectively keeping invasive animals at bay, but the large majority of them are at risk of invasions, finds a involving UCL and led by the Chinese Academy of Science, in a study published in Nature Communications.

Underprotected marine protected areas in a global biodiversity hotspot
Through the assessment of the 1,062 MPAs in the Mediterranean Sea, covering 6% of the Mediterranean Basin, a research team has shown that 95% of the total area protected lacks regulations to reduce human impacts on biodiversity.

Warming climate undoes decades of knowledge of marine protected areas
A new study highlights that tropical coral reef marine reserves can offer little defence in the face of climate change impacts.

Caribbean sharks in need of large marine protected areas
Governments must provide larger spatial protections in the Greater Caribbean for threatened, highly migratory species such as sharks, is the call from a diverse group of marine scientists including Stony Brook University School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences (SoMAS) PhD Candidate, Oliver Shipley.

Red coral effectively recovers in Mediterranean protected areas
Protection measures of the Marine Protected Areas have enable red coral colonies (Corallium rubrum) to recover partially in the Mediterranean Sea, reaching health levels similar to those of the 1980s in Catalonia and of the 1960s in the Ligurian Sea (Northwestern Italy).

Read More: Protected Areas News and Protected Areas Current Events
Brightsurf.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.