It's no surprise: a new study shows that humans have impacted most of the world's oceanic wilderness, and only 13 percent remains untouched.
It marks the first time scientists have mapped how much ocean-based wilderness remains. The discovery is no longer shocking — humans have been ruining Earth for many, many years. But the fact that only 13 percent of the ocean remains unspoilt shows just how much humans have reshaped the planet over time.
Dwindling Marine Wilderness
Kendall Jones, who's the lead author of the study and a PhD candidate of the University of Queensland's School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, said he expected to find more wilderness.
"The fact that we didn't highlights just how widespread our activities have become."
The study, published recently in the Current Biology journal, is the first systematic analysis of Earth's marine wilderness areas. The researchers identified areas free from intense human impact, which they deemed as "marine wilderness" — places where human intervention is minimal or entirely nonexistent.
They discovered that only 55 million square kilometers, or five times the size of the African continent, can still be regarded as wilderness. It sure sounds like a lot, but most of Earth is ocean, and the fact that only 13 percent remains untouched is astounding.
Where Is This 13 Percent, Exactly?
More importantly, the researchers discovered that most of what remains untouched is located in the Arctic's high seas, in addition to Antarctic and remote Pacific Island nations. Meanwhile, coastal areas fared poorly in the study, with almost no wilderness left. These are areas where there's constant human activity and various developments, such as construction.
To make matters worse, the researchers discovered that only 5 percent of marine wilderness areas are protected. They think this is because international conservation agreements often overlook such areas as they focus on conserving endangered species primarily, and not protecting areas potent with marine life.
"We are arguing that while that is very important, you need to also balance that by trying to save places that are still wilderness and still acting and functioning as they once were," according to Jones.
Marine wilderness tends to have more biological and genetic diversity than other areas, as National Geographic notes. These areas are better at withstanding the effects of climate change and can reveal what areas of Earth looked like before humans touched them. It's unlikely they'll ever be restored, though.
"But if we do want to restore degraded ecosystems, wilderness provides important information on what we should be aiming for," said Jones.