If It Seems Like Roads Are Everywhere, It’s Not Your Imagination

A new study of global road maps shows just how much humans have paved the planet—and how that’s bad for all kinds of critters.


Recently, an area in New York’s Adirondacks known as Boreas Ponds became a point of contention. It’s up for land classification, and it’s one of the last “remote” areas of the Adirondack Park, the largest protected area in the continental United States. You’d be forgiven for not knowing that last fact, considering how many roads run through the park.

Advocacy groups have proposed keeping motorized vehicles and roads out of the area and getting it classified as wilderness, but they haven’t won yet. Their major concerns are twofold: preservation of remoteness, something that’s hard to come by these days, and wildlife habitat. Just five percent of the parkland sits at least three miles from a road–Boreas Ponds included–and 80 percent of the park is located a mile or less from roads.

A new study released in Science revealed that roads have divided the planet’s land into over 600,000 fragments, few of which are large enough to sustain wildlife. In fact, over half of these fragments are one square kilometer or smaller–about enough land to house a squirrel or two. Only seven percent of roadless parcels are larger than six by six miles.

“As roads continue to expand, there is an urgent need for a global strategy for the effective conservation, restoration and monitoring of roadless areas and their ecosystems,” said Prof Pierre Ibisch, who led the study and is at the Eberswalde University for Sustainable Development in Germany. “We urge governments to avoid the costly building of roads in remote areas, which would be ecologically disastrous.”

Consider that the length of the world’s roads is projected to increase by 60 percent over the next 35 years, and that only five percent of roadless areas are protected. Then consider how a road’s impact on the land it traverses expands far beyond its asphalt edges. Construction alone requires clearing of flora, compromises water quality, and creates noise pollution. Once built, the noise pollution stays, invasive species get a lift from motorized vehicles (particularly motorboats, which depend on cars and roads to get around), and increased human access to remote areas encourages more clearing, splinters animal populations, and leads to overall degradation of the immediate environment.

The maps reveal that the largest roadless areas sit in the northern reaches of Russia and Canada and the Amazonian and Indonesian rainforests, and that densely populated areas like the eastern United States and Western Europe have virtually no terrain unaffected by roads (which might help explain why black bears keep ending up in New Jersey swimming pools.)

While there’s little hope of getting established roads removed, biodiversity depends on advocating for greater protection of the few remaining roadless areas. Start with the Adirondack Wilderness Advocates and the move to ensure Boreas Ponds stays road-free.

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Showing 3 comments
  • Lynn
    Reply

    This is terrifying, quite frankly. Roads are some of the best things and worst things humans have created.

  • Brendan Wiltse
    Reply

    Thanks so much for raising awareness about Boreas Ponds and the work of Adirondack Wilderness Advocates!

  • Valerie
    Reply

    If you live in a very densely populated country like mine (Belgium), you would be incredibly happy if you actually find a spot where you can take a 360 degrees look and not see a single house.
    For example: I zoomed in on the most “vast” landscape you can find in Belgium on google maps and did the same for the Adirondacks, on the same scale (2 miles).
    Check out these differences:
    Adirondacks: https://www.google.com/maps/@44.0468428,-73.9435992,66569m/data=!3m1!1e3!5m1!1e4?hl=en
    Belgium: https://www.google.com/maps/@50.5610398,6.103785,58834m/data=!3m1!1e3!5m1!1e4?hl=en

    I do love my country, I think Belgium is an awesome place with beautiful history and great gastronomy.
    But I also hate the lack of any kind of wilderness, so much I could cry.

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