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Mangroves on Cayo Coco in Cuba. Photo: Prisma by Dukas/UIG via Getty Images

Human activities are encroaching on the lands we've set aside to protect vulnerable species, according to new research.

Key findings: The study, published Thursday in Science, found that about 33% — or roughly 2.3 million square miles — of protected land worldwide is under "intense human pressure" from development, such as roads, growing urban areas, and agriculture. Only 42% of protected land is free of any "measurable human pressure," the researchers found.

What they did: The study's authors devised a metric for the human footprint on our planet that includes proximity to built environments, pasture lands, intensive agriculture, nighttime lights, and human population density, among other variables. Protected lands include national parks as well as World Heritage sites and other types of areas designated as off-limits to development.

  • On a positive note, the average human footprint within protected areas was almost 50% lower than the global mean for all types of land areas.
  • But just 4,334 protected areas, amounting to 10% of analyzed protected areas, "are completely free of intense human pressure," they wrote.
  • Such areas tend to occur in remote parts of the globe, such as parts of Russia and Canada, rather than the tropics, which are both rich in biodiversity and have human populations encroaching upon them.

Most at risk: Of the types of biomes that are facing a particularly high amount of human pressure, mangrove forests lead the list. These aquatic forests serve as fish nurseries and protect shorelines from storm surge flooding.

  • Others shown to be under high pressure despite their protected status include tropical coniferous forests and flooded grasslands and savannas.

Be smart: Interestingly, the combined metric used in the study — known as the human footprint score — could lead conservationists in the wrong direction, warns Rob McDonald a conservationist at the Nature Conservancy, who was not involved in the new study.

He says conservationists have successfully carved out well-functioning land reserves near or even within urban areas, but that under this study, these would receive a high human footprint score. Such a score could discourage policymakers and groups from pursuing additional protected areas near urban settings.

“I just view doing land protection near human activity as part of doing conservation in the 21st century," McDonald says.

In related news: The findings relate to another study published in Science on Thursday that looked at a staggering number of species — 115,000 — to see how limiting global warming to different levels would vary in their impacts on species.

  • The researchers counted the number of species projected to lose more than half their geographic range due to climate change, which could make areas unsuitable for many species.
  • They found that on the current global warming trajectory, with global average temperatures increasing by at least 3 degrees Celsius, or 5.4 degrees Fahrenheit, compared to preindustrial levels, nearly 50% of insects would lose half their range.
  • This would fall to just 6% of insect species if warming were held to 1.5 degrees Celsius, or 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit, above preindustrial levels — the goal of the Paris Agreement.

Previous studies looking at how global warming would affect species' ranges had not focused on insects, despite their value to keeping ecosystems healthy, such as through pollination.

Go deeper

UN poll: Most see climate change as global emergency during pandemic

Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg (C) fronts a Fridays For Future protest at the Swedish Parliament in Stockholm in September. Photo: Jonathan Nacksrtrand/AFP via Getty Images

64% of people from around the world say climate change is a global emergency, a United Nations poll published Wednesday finds.

Why it matters: It's the biggest global survey on climate change ever conducted, with some 1.2 million participants from 50 countries — including the U.S., where 65% of those surveyed view climate change as an emergency.

Collins helps contractor before pro-Susan PAC gets donation

Sen. Susan Collins during her reelection campaign. Photo: Scott Eisen/Getty Images

A PAC backing Sen. Susan Collins in her high-stakes reelection campaign received $150,000 from an entity linked to the wife of a defense contractor whose firm Collins helped land a federal contract, new public records show.

Why it matters: The executive, Martin Kao of Honolulu, leaned heavily on his political connections to boost his business, federal prosecutors say in an ongoing criminal case against him. The donation linked to Kao was veiled until last week.

How cutting GOP corporate cash could backfire

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Companies pulling back on political donations, particularly to members of Congress who voted against certifying President Biden's election win, could inadvertently push Republicans to embrace their party's rightward fringe.

Why it matters: Scores of corporate PACs have paused, scaled back or entirely abandoned their political giving programs. While designed to distance those companies from events that coincided with this month's deadly siege on the U.S. Capitol, research suggests the moves could actually empower the far-right.