Development has affected 7 percent of virgin forests since 2000: Study

A new study shows that the world has lost 7 percent of its intact forests in the past 16 years, with implications for biodiversity, climate change, and human life.

Todd Korol/Reuters/File
Oil pipelines crisscross Fort McMurray, Alberta, seen here in 2013. Industrial activity continues to encroach on the boreal forest, with implications for biodiversity - and a new study shows that intact forests may be disappearing at an accelerating rate.

On the surface, it’s just a vast expanse of land. But look closer, and the untouched areas of Canada’s boreal forest are a teeming mass of life – one that may hold some life-sustaining answers.

Yet in Canada and worldwide, untouched wilderness is coming under increased pressure, according to research published Friday in the journal Science Advances. The study’s authors, who have been using satellite data to track changes in the world’s intact landscapes for more than a decade, report that 7.2 percent of these areas have been compromised since 2000.

As these landscapes disappear or are sliced up by human activity, the multiplicity of species that inhabit these pristine corners of the earth are threatened. Not only are these species critical to understanding life on earth, but they may also hold hints for sustaining a growing global population. In addition, soils and forests act as a bulwark against the effects of climate change.

“As we lose [pristine areas], we lose something that is bigger than ourselves,” explained forest expert and study co-author Lars Laestadius to the Washington Post.

The authors define an intact forest landscape as a piece of land greater than 500 square kilometers (200 square miles) that has not been touched by human activity, from human-caused wildfires to pipeline construction. These areas can include ecosystems from deserts to wetlands.

What’s driving their decline? With human societies covering an ever-increasing portion of the globe, it’s simply easier to access these once-remote areas, Dr. Laestadius suggested to the Post. NASA’s Earth Observatory indicates that state economic development policies – including building railways and expanding agriculture – have also caused significant deforestation.

When human activity encroaches, it can have a devastating impact on biodiversity. Some species only exist in tiny areas of an ecosystem, notes NASA’s Earth Observatory, meaning that they can be wiped out altogether. And activities such as clear-cutting trees can fundamentally change the types of wildlife that spring up.

With the loss of these species and their habitats comes a corresponding loss in scientific understanding, observed Laestadius.

“As we lose [them], it becomes more difficult for us to understand what is happening in those parts of the world that are already subject to human influence,” he said. “We sort of lose the benchmark of Mother Nature.”

Forests’ biodiversity could hold the clues for all kinds of questions facing life on earth, including feeding a growing population, suggests NASA’s Earth Observatory: “Hidden in the genes of plants, animals, fungi, and bacteria that have not even been discovered yet may be … the key to improving the yield and nutritional quality of foods.”

Old-growth forests may also have an important role to play in combating climate change. All trees and soils store carbon by taking in carbon dioxide. A 2008 study in the journal Nature indicated that old forests were particularly successful as carbon sinks, with those in the Pacific Northwest, Canada, and Russia taking in up to 0.4 gigatons of carbon annually. As these forests are cut down or burned, that stored carbon is released.

At current rates, 19 countries will lose all their intact forests within 60 years, the authors of the new study write – and in four countries, they will be gone within 20 years. With all of the benefits at stake, how can the decline in intact forests be slowed? 

Sebastiaan Luyssaert, author of the 2008 study, told Scientific American that more emphasis needs to be placed on protecting existing forests, rather than seeing them as a resource that can be restored.

"Any kind of existing program that gives credit to reforestation could give credits to forest preservation," he suggested. Instead of replanting trees, in other words, use the funds to maintain old forests.

Formal forest protection is another answer. The authors of the Science Advances study found that protected areas were three-and-a-half times less likely to be compromised. But only about a tenth of the remaining untouched areas are protected, they say, highlighting a need for “carbon sequestration and biodiversity conservation efforts that target the most valuable remaining forests.”

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