Catawba professor senior author of international conservation study

Published 12:00 am Thursday, June 18, 2020

SALISBURY – A Catawba College assistant professor is the senior author of an international study that states that roughly half the Earth’s ice-free land remains without significant human influence. It presents clear opportunities to conserve what remains.

Andrew Jacobson, professor of GIS and Conservation in Catawba’s Department of the Environment & Sustainability, worked on the study, which involved a team of international researchers led by the National Geographic Society and the University of California, Davis. It was published in the journal, Global Change Biology, on June 5, which is World Environment Day. The study compared four recent global maps of the conversion of natural lands to anthropogenic land uses to reach its conclusions.

“The encouraging takeaway from this study is that if we act quickly and decisively, there is a slim window in which we can still conserve roughly half of Earth’s land in a relatively intact state,” said lead author Jason Riggio, a postdoctoral scholar at the UC Davis Museum of Wildlife and Fish Biology.

The coronavirus pandemic now shaking the globe illustrates the importance of maintaining natural lands to separate animal and human activity. The leading scientific evidence points to the likelihood that SARS CoV2, the virus that causes the disease COVID-19, is a zoonotic virus that jumped from animals to humans. Ebola, bird flu, and SARS are other diseases known to have spilled over into the human population from non-human animals.

Regional and national land use planning that
identifies and appropriately zones locations best suited to urban growth
and agriculture could help control the spread of human development,” Jacobson said. “Establishing protections for other landscapes, particularly those currently experiencing low human impacts, would also be beneficial. Human risk to diseases like COVID-19 could be reduced by halting the trade and sale of wildlife, and minimizing human intrusion into wild areas.”

The study aims to inform the upcoming global Convention on Biological Diversity – the Conference of Parties 15. The historic meeting was scheduled to occur in China this fall but was postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic. Among the meeting’s goals is to establish higher targets for land and water protection

Approximately 15 percent of the Earth’s land surface and 10 percent of the oceans are currently protected in some form. However, led by organizations including Nature Needs Half and the Half-Earth Project, there have been bold global calls for governments to commit to protecting 30 percent of the land and water by 2030 and 50 percent by 2050.

“Though human land uses are increasingly threatening Earth’s remaining natural habitats, especially in warmer and more hospitable areas, nearly half of Earth still remains in areas without large-scale intensive use,” said co-author Erle Ellis, professor of geography at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County.

Areas having low human influence do not necessarily exclude people, livestock or sustainable management of resources. A balanced conservation response that addresses land sovereignty and weighs agriculture, settlement or other resource needs with the protection of ecosystem services and biodiversity essential, the authors note.

“Achieving this balance will be necessary if we hope to meet ambitious conservation targets,” Riggio said. “But our study optimistically shows that these targets are still within reach.”