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The Earth Lost 10 Percent of Its Wilderness in Only 2 Decades

The rate at which pristine areas are being destroyed is “catastrophic,” say scientists.

Cows graze next to burned Amazon rainforest in 2013 near the city of Novo Progresso, Brazil. (Nacho Doce/Reuters)

Picture a plain the size of India made of grass, exposed dirt, and the smoking remnants of vegetation. That’s what humanity has gifted the world since the early 1990s thanks to logging, mining, energy exploration, development, and other agents of landscape destruction.

The planet lost roughly 1.2 million square miles of wilderness over this period, equivalent to one-tenth of its total stock, according to a new study in Current Biology. Calling the pace of land-clearing “catastrophic,” researchers from the Wildlife Conservation Society and elsewhere identify the Amazon and Central Africa as major targets of denudement. The former has suffered a 30 percent loss since 1992, while in the same time the latter has seen 14 percent of its wild areas vanish.

Large wilderness areas that have disappeared since the early 1990s are marked in red. Insets show the Amazon (A), the Western Sahara (B), the west Siberian Taiga (C), and Borneo (D). (Watson et al./Current Biology)

So much wilderness has been removed—with “wilderness” being defined as ecologically and biologically intact regions with little human presence—that only about a quarter of it remains throughout the planet, according to the researchers. Most of the world’s still-vital biomes seem to be in remote areas humanity simply hasn’t gotten around to exploiting, such as deserts, the Arctic tundra, and the sprawling boreal forests of Russia and Canada.

James Watson of the conservation society and University of Queensland calls in a press release for international policies to protect the remaining wilderness, warning we “probably have one to two decades to turn this around.” Here’s more:

‘Globally important wilderness areas—despite being strongholds for endangered biodiversity, for buffering and regulating local climates, and for supporting many of the world’s most politically and economically marginalized communities—are completely ignored in environmental policy,’ says [Watson.]...

‘We need to recognize that wilderness is being dramatically lost and that without proactive global interventions we could lose the last jewels in nature’s crown. You cannot restore wilderness. Once it is gone, the ecological process that underpin these ecosystems are gone, and it never comes back to the state it was.’

About the Author

  • John Metcalfe
    John Metcalfe is CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, based in Oakland. His coverage focuses on climate change and the science of cities.