A Tenth of the Earth’s Wilderness Is Officially Gone

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And—not surprisingly—humans are mostly to blame.

By Madeleine Thomas


(Photo: Kurt Thomas Hunt/Flickr)

In just 20 years, a tenth of the world’s wilderness — an area about half the size of Australia — has been lost, according to a new study published in the journal Current Biology.

About 3.3 million square kilometers have been destroyed across the planet since the early 1990s, researchers predict.

“Once you lose them, you lose them … and that’s a tragedy because humans are putting their fingerprints everywhere and we’re losing that reference point for nature,” lead researcher James Watson, an associate professor at the University of Queensland, told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

Roughly 30 million square kilometers of global wilderness still remain intact, according to the study, mostly in North America, North Asia, North Africa and Australia. But still, the amount of global wilderness protected since the early ’90s — 2.5 million square kilometers — is still far less than what has been destroyed already. And some regions have been harder hit than others: In just two decades, a staggering 30 percent of South America’s wilderness has been decimated, the study found, with the damage concentrated largely in the Amazon Basin.

Humans are, not surprisingly, largely to blame for the catastrophic loss: Climate change, industrial mining, forestry and agriculture, and sprawling cities are all degrading habitat at an alarming rate, according to the study.

This loss is “particularly concerning,” researchers note, as deforestation in the Amazon dropped considerably between 2005 and 2013. The Amazon rainforest, (the largest in the world) typically absorbs as much as 2.2 billion tons of carbon dioxide each year. But the precious carbon sink is already beginning to store one-third less of the greenhouse gas than it did about a decade ago, according to previous reports.

“[I]f these trends continue,” Watson and his colleagues note, “there could be no globally significant wilderness areas left in less than a century.”