Their results show that, although roadless areas make up about 80 percent of Earth's terrestrial surface, these areas are dissected into about 600,000 patches. The findings, which the team gathered from previous research and two crowdsourced data sets - OpenStreetMap and gROADS - show only 7 percent of these patches created by roads are greater than 100 square kilometers (38 square miles).
Patches don't cut it, said Ibisch, when it comes to preserving wildlife and natural features.
"We need a change in thinking," he said. "It's not about preserving tiny little patches like in a museum - we need to preserve working landscapes and ecosystems."
As the network of roads around the world is expected to expand by 60 percent from 2010 to 2050, there is an urgency to preserve as much untouched land as possible.
"Roads determine the pattern and pace of habitat destruction," said William Laurance, director of the Center for Tropical Environmental and Sustainability Science at Australia's James Cook University. "What we say is: Whenever possible, avoid the first cut."
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Laurance has been at the forefront of devising ways to preserve the world's remaining wilderness. While he didn't contribute to this latest project, he acknowledged a major first step in wilderness preservation is creating a map of both legal and illegal roads.
"Having a proper map of the world's roads has been one of the holy grails that we have been lacking," Laurance told Seeker.
Laurance says he appreciates the "impressive" efforts of Ibisch's team, but he doesn't believe the new map is what they've been waiting for.
"There's enormous variation in reporting from countries," Laurance explained. "In Switzerland you find every road perfectly mapped, but if you go to Borneo, you find there are hundreds of roads that are not legal and not mapped."
Researchers have tried identifying roads from satellite imagery, but that's proven inaccurate since so many other features can be interpreted as roads. Work is ongoing to improve an algorithm that will allow computers to accurately identify roads from space.
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Until that algorithm is perfected, said Laurance, "the only way to do it is with human eyes - through crowdsourcing."
The two crowdsource platforms used by Ibich's team work somewhat like Wikipedia. Created in 2004, OpenStreetMap is powered by more than 2 million registered users who collect data using on-site surveys, GPS and aerial photography. The crowdsourced data are then made available in an open database.
Global Roads Open Access Data Set, or gRoads, was established in 2007 at Columbia University and offers a digital global road map in the public domain, which anyone can update.
Laurance argues that even though the platforms are useful resources, he believes they miss significant numbers of roads particularly in the tropics, where rampant illegal roads from logging and poaching are difficult to track.
"It's no to insult to anyone - it's a Herculean task," he said. "Trying to understand where global roads are is a nightmarish job. These roads can spring up overnight. And they can disappear from satellite view after a couple of years."
Ibisch agrees the new map is "not perfect" but he thinks, with time, the crowd-sourced data will improve, and their work is a step in the right direction.
"Not all roads are mapped by this crowd-sourcing platform. It's created by people who travel and map roads as they encounter them," he said. "But we hope the study can contribute to discovering this crowd-sourced platform as a tool for conservation."
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