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One-Third of Protected Areas 'Highly Degraded' By Humans, Study Finds

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One-Third of Protected Areas 'Highly Degraded' By Humans, Study Finds
White-banded swallows in Yasuni National Park, which has largely escaped human pressures. Geoff Gallice from Gainesville / CC BY 2.0

A study published in Science Friday presents what authors call a sobering "reality check" on global efforts to protect biodiversity—one third of all conservation areas set aside as wildlife sanctuaries or national parks are "highly degraded" by human activities.


"The study shows that governments are overestimating the space available for nature inside protected areas. Governments are claiming these places are protected for the sake of nature when in reality they aren't. It is a major reason why biodiversity is still in catastrophic decline, despite more and more land being 'protected,'" study lead-author Kendall Jones of the University of Queensland said in a press release published by ScienceDaily.

Jones was joined by other researchers from the University of Queensland as well as from the University of Northern British Columbia and the Wildlife Conservation Society, which provided materials for the press release. They used what the abstract calls the "most comprehensive global map of human pressure" to determine that 2.3 million square miles—32.8 percent of all protected land—is under extreme pressure from grazing, urbanization, road-building and other human activities.

The study's authors said the study was a warning for countries looking to make their targets for the Convention on Biodiversity (CBD). The UN is celebrating the 25th anniversary of the CBD's entry into force on the International Day for Biological Diversity May 22. The number of protected areas has almost doubled in those 25 years, accounting for 15 percent of the Earth's land area. The goal is to cover 17 percent by 2020.

But the study indicates that, when it comes to protecting land, governments need to think about quality as well as quantity. The study found that, of lands protected before the CBD was ratified, 55 percent had experienced an increase in human-caused pressures since. However, that increase was lowest in large reserves with strict protections.

"We know protected areas work—when well-funded, well-managed and well placed, they are extremely effective in halting the threats that cause biodiversity loss and ensure species return from the brink of extinction. There are also many protected areas that are still in good condition and protect the last strongholds of endangered species worldwide. The challenge is to improve the management of those protected areas that are most valuable for nature conservation to ensure they safeguard it," study author and University of Queensland Prof. James Watson said in the press release.

Some success stories included the Madidi National Park in Bolivia, the Keo Seima Wildlife Sanctuary in Cambodia and the Yasuni Biosphere Reserve in Ecuador. The areas that suffered most human pressures were in highly populated parts of Europe, Asia and Africa.

A plume of smoke from wildfires burning in the Angeles National Forest is seen from downtown Los Angeles on Aug. 29, 2009 in Los Angeles, California. Kevork Djansezian / Getty Images

California is bracing for rare January wildfires this week amid damaging Santa Ana winds coupled with unusually hot and dry winter weather.

High winds, gusting up to 80- to 90 miles per hour in some parts of the state, are expected to last through Wednesday evening. Nearly the entire state has been in a drought for months, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, which, alongside summerlike temperatures, has left vegetation dry and flammable.

Utilities Southern California Edison and PG&E, which serves the central and northern portions of the state, warned it may preemptively shut off power to hundreds of thousands of customers to reduce the risk of electrical fires sparked by trees and branches falling on live power lines. The rare January fire conditions come on the heels of the worst wildfire season ever recorded in California, as climate change exacerbates the factors causing fires to be more frequent and severe.

California is also experiencing the most severe surge of COVID-19 cases since the beginning of the pandemic, with hospitals and ICUs over capacity and a stay-at-home order in place. Wildfire smoke can increase the risk of adverse health effects due to COVID, and evacuations forcing people to crowd into shelters could further spread the virus.

As reported by AccuWeather:

In the atmosphere, air flows from high to low pressure. The setup into Wednesday is like having two giant atmospheric fans working as a team with one pulling and the other pushing the air in the same direction.
Normally, mountains to the north and east of Los Angeles would protect the downtown which sits in a basin. However, with the assistance of the offshore storm, there will be areas of gusty winds even in the L.A. Basin. The winds may get strong enough in parts of the basin to break tree limbs and lead to sporadic power outages and sparks that could ignite fires.
"Typically, Santa Ana winds stay out of downtown Los Angeles and the L.A. Basin, but this time, conditions may set up just right to bring 30- to 40-mph wind gusts even in those typically calm condition areas," said AccuWeather Senior Meteorologist Mike Doll.

For a deeper dive:

AP, LA Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Washington Post, Weather Channel, AccuWeather, New York Times, Slideshow: New York Times; Climate Signals Background: Wildfires, 2020 Western wildfire season

For more climate change and clean energy news, you can follow Climate Nexus on Twitter and Facebook, sign up for daily Hot News, and visit their news site, Nexus Media News.

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