Report: Just 23% of Earth's wilderness remains

A new paper in Nature adds urgency to the fight against climate change.

  • "Seventy-seven percent of land (excluding Antarctica) and 87 percent of the ocean has been modified by the direct effects of human activities," states a new paper in Nature.
  • Just 5 countries — Russia, Canada, Australia, the U.S., and Brazil — contain 70 percent of the world's wilderness (excluding Antarctica).
  • The paper emphasizes the urgent need to protect large-scale ecosystems, calling them a buffer against the Anthropocene.

Image: Springer Nature, Vol. 563, Nov 2018.

Human exploration and activity has transformed the natural world, and a paper recently published in Nature gives us some numbers to accompany our sense of that ever-snowballing change. The Wildlife Conservation Society summarizes it in a news release: "23 percent of the world's landmass can now be considered wilderness, with the rest—excluding Antarctica—lost to the direct effects of human activities."

The criteria by which the Nature paper examined Earth included a focus on built environments, crop and pasture lands, population density, night-time lights, roadways, railways, and navigable waterways, and the scale of the details found using that criteria are shocking, as the authors, James E. M. Watson, James R. Allan and colleagues, write:

"Between 1993 and 2009, an area of terrestrial wilderness larger than India — a staggering 3.3 million square kilometres — was lost to human settlement, farming, mining and other pressures. In the ocean, areas that are free of industrial fishing, pollution and shipping are almost completely confined to the polar regions."

Such a large impact seems to be relegated to comparably few actors as well. Twenty nations hold control over 94 percent of the marine and terrestrial earth. Five nations — Russia, Canada, Australia, the U.S., and Brazil — control 70 percent.

If future generations are to remember us with gratitude rather than contempt ... we must leave them a glimpse of the world as it was in the beginning. — Lyndon B. Johnson, 36th President of the United States

What action can be taken to protect global wilderness?

Image source: Springer Nature, Vol. 563, Nov 2018

"We believe that Earth's remaining wilderness can be protected only if its importance is recognized within international policy frameworks," the paper states. The authors continue:

"How can changes in policy at the global level translate into effective national action? By our measure, 20 countries contain 94 percent of the world's remaining wilderness (excluding the high seas and Antarctica). More than 70 percent is in just five countries — Russia, Canada, Australia, the United States and Brazil (see 'What's left?'). Thus, the steps these nations take (or fail to take) to limit the expansion of roads and shipping lanes, and to rein in large-scale developments in mining, forestry, agriculture, aquaculture and industrial fishing, will be critical."

The paper recommends a move for large-scale ecosystems to be explicitly protected by an international framework similar to The Paris Climate Agreement.

Pressure could well be put on the five largest meat and dairy companies, who emit a startling amount of C02 and don't receive nearly as much political attention as oil companies.

Global policy should also encourage rewilding. Build more carbon capture sites. Plant more trees. Donate to organizations that plant more trees. Reach out directly to Chinese provinces to assist in their energy production so that the relatively new spike in C02 emissions drops.

Quite relevant in this moment in America, just before the midterms: Vote for politicians and environmental issues that will make the world a better place.

The authors finish on an emotionally poignant note:

"As U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson observed when he signed the US Wilderness Act in 1964, "If future generations are to remember us with gratitude rather than contempt. . . we must leave them a glimpse of the world as it was in the beginning."

Already we have lost so much. We must grasp this opportunity to secure the wilderness before it disappears forever.

Photo by Tony Reid on Unsplash

"Earth's remaining wilderness areas are becoming increasingly important buffers against changing conditions in the Anthropocene. Yet they aren't an explicit target in international policy frameworks," write James E. M. Watson, James R. Allan and colleagues.

Cambridge scientists create a successful "vaccine" against fake news

A large new study uses an online game to inoculate people against fake news.

University of Cambridge
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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

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