Mapping humanity's influence on the natural environment

The impact that humanity has had on the Earth’s natural environment is truly massive, and continually changing through time and space. Recent research led by CBCS members James Watson, Kendall Jones, James Allan and Hugh Possingham, in collaboration with Oscar Venter of the University of Northern British Columbia, has taken the best available data on infrastructure, land cover and human access to natural areas to construct a globally standardised measure of the cumulative human footprint and allowed for a recent temporal examination of impact. They found that human impact has slowed over recent years, and is outpaced by population and economic growth – a promising sign that we are becoming more efficient in how we use natural resources.

This updated human footprint map has led to high-impact research by CBCS members, and has been key in understanding where biodiversity is most threatened and what actions we can take to best overcome these threats. For example, recent work from the Green Fire Science lab group (GFS; whose director is James Watson) has shown that half of the world's ecosystems are currently at risk from habitat loss, and only 20% of Earth’s land surface remains as wilderness areas. Additionally, similar research in the marine realm discovered that only 13% of the world's oceans remain as marine wilderness areas. Wilderness areas are not only important strongholds for endangered biodiversity but they are also essential for sustaining complex ecosystem processes, such as storing vast amounts of carbon and, at the same time, safeguarding the cultures of traditional peoples. Worringly, even those places that have been designated as protected areas have also been degraded by human activities. In another study, GFS lab researchers found that one-third of the area that has been set aside for conservation is currently under intense human pressure.

Even for World Heritage sites, deemed the Earth’s most beautiful and important places by UNESCO, research shows considerable degradation, with damage in 50 of 203 natural sites, 20 of which risk being damaged beyond repair. This work has led to recommendations to the United Nations' Framework Convention on Climate Change, the Convention on Biological Diversity and the United Nations' World Heritage Convention to formally acknowledge the Outstanding Universal Values of wilderness areas in future strategic plans. There is now a large – and growing – conservation movement calling for intact landscapes and seascapes to be prioritised in future conservation priorities undertaken by nations, as part of implementing a global plan for nature in the future.

Project members

Professor James Watson

Senior Research Fellow
School of the Environment