Only One-Eighth of the Ocean is Free of Human Impact

Thirteen percent of the world’s oceans is considered marine wilderness—crucial areas of water mostly undisturbed by humans where biodiversity is able to flourish.

Marine wilderness

Low population

High population

Equator

Indo-Pacific warm water

Southern cold water

By Kennedy Elliott

Published July 26, 2018

Much is known about human impact on land wilderness, but until recently, less has been known about how human activity and climate change have affected marine vitality. In a study published Thursday in Current Biology, researchers have determined that marine wilderness accounts for only 13 percent—some 34 million square kilometers—of the ocean.

Marine wilderness is area that has experienced low or no human disturbance. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the highest concentrations of marine wilderness are found far away from typical human reach: in the high seas and less-populated southern hemisphere. Coastal areas contain only 10 percent of marine wilderness. Only five percent of wilderness is in internationally protected areas.

While that pattern is predictable, Kendall Jones, lead author and conservation planning specialist at the Wildlife Conservation Society, said he expected to find more wilderness. He attributes some of the result to a growing fishing industry continually pushing its own physical boundaries. “Fishing is the most significant way in which humans impact the ocean,” he said.

Three key regions of water contain 97 percent of marine wilderness

Area of

Region

Marine wilderness

Southern cold water

Indo-Pacific warm water

60 million

square miles

Everything else

Northern

cold water

KENNEDY ELLIOTT, NG STAFF. KENDALL R. JONES, WILDLIFE

CONSERVATION SOCIETY

Southern cold water

Indo-Pacific warm water

9.8 million

17 million

square miles

60 million square miles

Everything else

121 million

Northern

cold water

3.8

million

58 million

14 million

KENNEDY ELLIOTT, NG STAFF; KENDALL R. JONES, WILDLIFE CONSERVATION SOCIETY

Marine wilderness congregates at the poles as well, where sea ice has made it relatively inaccessible to humans. But as sea ice melts, Jones and his team believe those areas may become more vulnerable to human and climate stressors.

Researchers looked at 15 human-made stressors, like fishing, pollution and nutrient runoff, as well as four climate change-related ones, like ocean acidification, and determined the areas with the lowest impact.

Marine wilderness tends to have more biological and genetic diversity than other areas. These areas can be more resilient to the effects of climate change and can show us what areas of the globe looked like before human intervention, though it’s unlikely they will ever be fully restored, Jones said.

“But if we do want to restore degraded ecosystems, wilderness provides important information on what we should be aiming for.”

Kendall R. Jones, Wildlife Conservation Society; Center for International Earth Science Information Network, Columbia University

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