16.01.2017 change 16.01.2017

Priceless wilderness: Earth cut with roads into hundreds of thousands of pieces

Roads, streets and motorways divide the Earth into at least 600 thousand pieces. The smaller the pieces, the worse it usually is for wildlife. Scientists - including Polish researchers - prepared a world map of wilderness.

"Nature conservation efforts are usually focused on protecting species or habitats. In our publications we propose a more holistic approach. We want to draw attention to the fact that the areas without roads - increasingly rare in our landscape - are very important from the point of view of nature protection" - commented in an interview with PAP Prof. Nuria Selva from the Institute of Nature Conservation PAS in Kraków. The study, of which she was correspondence author, was published in mid-December in "Science" - one of the most prestigious scientific journals.

In the international study led by Pierre Ibisch from Germany, researchers analysed the data on 36 million kilometres of roads running through all the landscapes and ecosystems of the planet. In their work, the researchers used the platform OpenStreetMap - a huge database generated by Internet users. The researchers prepared an interactive map that shows the areas located far from any road. Their research shows that roads divide earthly landscapes into more than 600 thousand fragments. Among the road-free areas, not fragmented by roads, only 7 percent have a surface area greater than 100 sq km.

"The map is obviously not complete. In addition, new roads are built all the time. 25 million km of new roads are expected to be built by 2050. That is an awful lot. We want to draw attention to this issue and emphasise that some wild areas should not be fragmented further" - said the researcher from the Institute of Nature Conservation PAS. She noted that once a new road has been built - it will be difficult to reverse the effects.

According to the researchers, the presence of roads generates a number of problems in natural systems. It can, for example, inhibit gene flow between populations of animals, facilitate the spread of invasive species and diseases, and increase soil erosion and pollution of rivers and wetlands. Another problem is also the free spread of people in previously inaccessible areas. The consequences of the construction of roads through previously untouched areas usually include illegal logging, poaching and deforestation. Moreover, the construction of one road makes it easier to build more roads, and consequently causes irreversible transformation of natural landscapes and ecosystems.

When one looks at the map, it\'s hard to believe how densely Poland is cut by a network of roads and how rare wilderness is. "In the whole Polish Carpathians we have counted only 14 areas without roads, which are larger than 4 square kilometres" - pointed out the researcher.

She said that Polish forests are highly fragmented. "Forest roads are everywhere. They may have less impact on nature than, for example, motorways, but we should not ignore their importance" - said Prof. Nuria Selva.

According to the researcher, the inspiration for the study was the system in place in the United States. "In addition to National Parks, there are areas where not only habitats and individual species are protected, but also wilderness itself" - she explained. She said that people have access to these areas, but are asked to walk a new route every time and not create paths. "Because there are people who like such places and need them. The possibility of resting in such places is the ecosystem service of these areas" - said the researcher.

"If there is an area with no roads, there is no need to establish a national park. The area itself becomes less accessible to people" - concluded the researcher.

PAP - Science and Scholarship in Poland, Ludwika Tomala

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