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How wild is today's world?

How wild is today's world?

For 18 months, environmental policy analyst J. Michael McCloskey and geography Heather Spalding pored over aerial navigation charts from the U.S. Defense Mapping Agency, scouting for what navigators abhor--the absence of landmarks. Focusing on areas they describe as "affected primarily by the forces of nature, with the imprint of man's work substantially unnoticeable," they ignored regions showing roads, settlements, buildings, airports, railroads, pipelines, power lines, dams, reservoirs and oil wells. Their labors yielded what they now term the first global wilderness inventory.

Constrained by time and the degree of resolution in the charts, McCloskey and Spalding, both with the Sierra Club in Washington, D.C., limited their tally to land tracts including at least 1 million acres. Even so, they found that roughly 18.56 million square miles--about a third of the planet's land mass--remain wild.

Antarctica, totally wilderness, leads the list. Following it are North America (37.5 percent wilderness), the Soviet Union (33.6 percent), Australasia, which includes island in the southwest Pacific (27.9 percent), Africa (27.5 percent), South America (20.8 percent), Asia (13.6 percent) and Europe (2.8 percent). In general, the qualifying tracts form several broad bands: one sweeping across northern Alaska, Canada and the northernmost part of the Soviet Union; another running southwest from the far eastern Soviet Union through Tibet, Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia into Africa; and east-west belt through the Sahara; and another running north-south through the center of Australia. Wild patches appear in Africa, around the Amazon and along the Andes.

Warm deserts and temperate regions each account for 20 percent of the identified wildlands, tropics for 11 percent, mixed mountain systems for almost 4 percent and cold deserts for another 3 percent.

Less than 20 percent of the identified wilderness is legally protected from exploitation. Moreover, report the researchers in the latest AMBIO (Vol. 18, No. 4), "at least half of the remaining stock of wilderness is not self-protecting by virtue of its forbidding nature. It can slip away easily with little notice of encroachment as billions more are added to the human population." Other analysts have called for roughly tripling the areas protected in nature reserves. "The new inventory shows it's still not too late to accomplish this," says McCloskey.
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Title Annotation:Environment
Publication:Science News
Date:Aug 5, 1989
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