Habitat Loss since the first Earth Day

In response to my post on Earth Day trends, Emily Burns asked about habitat loss and development. Has land protection kept pace with losses or do we need to accelerate protection efforts?

Recreated wetlands in the Central Valley, California
Recreated wetlands in the Central Valley, California

I have struggled to find data to compare habitat loss in the 43 years since the first Earth Day. What I have found suggests that while the trends are in the right direction in some ecosystems, habitat destruction continues at worrying rates around the world and right here in the USA. It also appears to be accelerating in the places that are hardest to manage and regulate and where the stressors are primarily global climate change. While the northern tundra and coral reefs of the world might seem remote, there loss will likely accelerate the changes we see here at home. They also can’t be protected by simply buying them and creating a park. Protecting them, and indeed protecting all the places set aside in parks and reserves, now needs a much more global and holistic approach.  If there’s a bright spot in that its that our daily actions, while small individually, do add up. But they need to be combined with strong political leadership to make a lasting difference.

Tropical Forests

According to the FAO, deforestation of tropical forests peaked between 1950 and 1979 at over 300 million hectares. They estimate we lost lost 100 million hectares between 1996 and 2010 (thats over twice the size of California). So while the trend is in the right direction, the losses each year are staggering and cumulative.

Wetland Loss in the USA

According to the EPA, the lower-48 states contained 110.1 million acres of wetlands in 2009 (an area the size of California).This is estimated at one half of the area of wetlands in 1600. Peak wetland destruction occurred from the 1950s to 1970s and has declined since then. While the trend is in the right direction,  we still lost a further 62,300 acres between 2004 and 2009 and all the associated benefits they provided such as flood control and bird habitat.

Tundra Loss

At the far northern extent of our continent lies the tundra — the treeless plain. Long considered immutable, this too is starting to change according to research reported in Yale Environment 360. As the planet warms we are losing tundra through increased burning and thawing. Both release additional carbon dioxide into the atmosphere — which in turn is likely to accelerate the rate of change.

Coral Reef Loss

According to  the Status of Coral Reefs of the World: 2004  it is estimated that 20% of the worlds’ reefs were effectively destroyed with no prospects of recovery. A further 24% were under imminent risk of collapse and 26% under ing term threat of collapse. Pressures are primarily related to human’s land management practices releasing sediments, nutrients and pollutants into the oceans, along with fishing.  Bleaching associated with acidification and warmer oceans is rapidly emerging as a primary threat. According to a 2007 study reported in National Geographic, loss of coral reefs was proceeding at twice the rate of loss of tropical forests.


One thought on “Habitat Loss since the first Earth Day”

  1. Just imagine how the pressures for our wild lands and their natural resources will grow as the human population increases further. I’d hope society errs on the side of protecting too much land and ocean, than not enough.

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