Thursday, February 29, 2024

Roads, other infrastructure infringe on many biodiversity hot spots

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Modern infrastructure is encroaching on nearly 80 percent of areas deemed critical to protecting the diversity of life on Earth, according to research.

In a study released last week in the journal Biological Conservation, researchers mapped over 15,000 areas deemed key to biodiversity. Then they mapped current and potential infrastructure within those boundaries, looking for developments such as transportation corridors, dams, urban areas, oil and gas facilities, and mines.

The analysis points to the grim reality of human encroachment. Nearly 80 percent of the biodiversity areas contain at least one type of infrastructure, the research found, and more than a third of the areas are slated for future infrastructure projects. Roads were the most common type of infrastructure, followed by power lines and urban areas.

“We recognize that infrastructure is essential to human development but it’s about building smartly. This means ideally avoiding or otherwise minimizing infrastructure in the most important locations for biodiversity,” Ashley T. Simkins, a PhD student in zoology at the University of Cambridge who led the study, said in a news release. “If the infrastructure must be there, then it should be designed to cause as little damage as possible, and the impacts more than compensated for elsewhere.”

When they looked at plans for upcoming development, the researchers found a potential 292 percent increase in the number of zones containing mines, oil and gas, or energy-related infrastructure — all of which are associated with pollution, habitat destruction and other hazards to wildlife. Biodiversity hot spots such as Brazil and central Africa are at particular risk for future development.

That’s cause for alarm, researchers say, pointing to the potential effects of construction, pollution and human activities. Those threats can be largely unseen: Birds, for example, can run into power lines and die, and roads can disrupt animals’ critical migration routes.

Even attempts to protect the planet could have unintended consequences for wild areas, the researchers say.

For example, green technologies including solar power and wind turbines will require precious metals, and thus mining. And many areas with the greatest risk for such development are in countries without strong environmental regulations, they warn.

The researchers call for better monitoring, improved regulations, and cooperation between governments, financiers and industry. It’s possible to build infrastructure while protecting nature, they imply. But to do so, humans must prioritize reducing their harm on the world around them.

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