By Chris Mooney
In an ambitious study that represents the latest merger between big data approaches and the quest to conserve the planet, scientists have found that across a majority of the Earth’s land surface — including some of its most important types of terrain and its most populous regions — the abundance or overall number of animals and plants of different species has fallen below a “safe” level identified by biologists.
The reason is not exactly a surprise — from grasslands to tropical forests, humans are using more and more land for agriculture, to live on, to build roads and infrastructure upon. When we take over, we clear the land or otherwise convert it for our purposes. This doesn’t always cause extinctions, but it does reduce the abundance of species and what researchers call the “intactness” of ecosystems — and when biodiversity levels fall too low, it can mean that larger ecosystems lose their resilience or even, at the extreme, cease to function.
“Exploitation of terrestrial systems has been vital for human development throughout history, but the cost to biosphere integrity has been high,” notes the study published Thursday in Science, which was led by Tim Newbold of the United Nations Environment Programme and University College London with a large group of colleagues representing several British, Australian, Danish and Swiss universities and institutions.
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