Climate change has the potential to reshape agricultural landscapes worldwide, enabling cultivation in previously unsuitable areas.

A recent study published in the journal Current Biology reveals that within the next four decades, these new agricultural regions may intersect with approximately 7 percent of the world’s non-Antarctic wilderness areas, putting these ecosystems at risk.

The study employed computer models to analyze climate-driven shifts in temperature and precipitation patterns. It also analyzed the impacts of these shifting patterns on the suitability of 1,708 crops.

The models considered two scenarios: one with reduced greenhouse gas emissions after 2040 and one with a continued increase in emissions. Although the former scenario would pose a lower risk to wilderness areas, both situations could significantly threaten biodiversity if the land is cultivated.

Alexandra Gardner, the study’s lead author, emphasized that these emerging agricultural frontiers are located within some of the planet’s last intact ecosystems, particularly in Arctic regions.

The preservation of these areas is crucial for biodiversity and achieving climate goals. Intact ecosystems effectively store and sequester carbon.

Wilderness endangered worldwide

The majority of the world’s remaining wilderness is mostly found in high-latitude regions in the Northern and Southern hemispheres. However, these regions are particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.

The Current Biology study predicts that within 40 years, corn could grow in the Canadian Arctic due to continued warming. The study identified significant emerging agricultural areas within the boreal forests of Alaska, Canada, and northern Russia.

It’s not just in the Arctic that climate change will affect wilderness areas. The risk is also present in tropical and mid-latitude regions.

For instance, under a high-emissions scenario, banana-growing regions in the Americas, Africa, and Southeast Asia would shift. 17.4 percent of newly suitable growing areas would encroach upon tropical wilderness areas.

Mid-latitude crops like wheat and potatoes would also be affected. For potatoes, 26.9 percent of newly suitable growing areas would be located within wilderness regions worldwide. For wheat, the corresponding figure is 11.6 percent.

However, it’s worth noting that the models used in the study only consider temperature and precipitation changes. The study omitted a crucial factor for agricultural growth: soil quality.

Monica Ortiz, a postdoctoral researcher who was not involved in the study, told Inside Climate News that many soil types in northern Canada and Siberia are currently unsuitable for agriculture. These soils would require intensive management to become productive lands.

How people should respond

According to Gardner, it’s crucial to map out potential overlapping areas between prospective growing regions and wilderness to inform future management plans.

In case agriculture expands into wilderness regions, farmers should adopt sustainable methods such as selecting climate-appropriate crops that don’t require excessive use of fertilizer or water. Furthermore, diversifying crops could enhance productivity and act as a protective measure in the face of extreme weather events like droughts or heat waves.