A primary focus of this week’s environmental studies material was the interdependence and balance of Earth’s natural ecology. The systems and cycles that are at work on this planet are continuous, self-propelling, and omnipresent. They are resilient and have been in progress since the inception of life on Earth. Because of natural systems such as the water, carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorus cycles, it is possible for an immense diversity of life to exist together. However, anthropogenic activities are interfering and threatening these crucial systems. Because of this damage, biodiversity is in great danger, knocking off the balance of nature and threatening the ability for our world to support us.
First of all, it is important to highlight the degree of biodiversity which exists on the earth, and the crucial role it plays in the environment’s stability and survival. Animals, plants, and protists each have thousands to millions of species with unique characteristics and niches. This multitude of different organisms work with each other and the abiotic aspects of Earth. Biodiversity is so important because it brings stability to an ecosystem, maintains natural capital, and provides a plethora of ecosystem services that allow life to be sustained. Furthermore, according to the textbook, over half of the species identified on the planet serve crucial roles in our Earth’s ecology. This becomes an even more impressive statistic when it is noted that there are an estimated 7 to 100 million species (Miller 2018, 70). The fact that so many species are vital components to the sustainability of the planet demonstrates the necessity to protect nonhuman organisms to the best of our ability.
For example, a keystone species which plays an enormous role in the balance of its environment is the wolf. As the video “How Wolves Change Rivers” illustrates, the reintroduction of an absent yet necessary species can impact not only the health and dynamics of an ecosystem, but the geography of the region as well. In Yellowstone National Park, wolves had been absent from the grounds for many years. In that time, deer populations skyrocketed and a large amount of natural capital became degraded. However, when wolves were reintroduced, a ripple effect occurred in which the new lack and reconditioning of deer led to healthier landscape and the reintroduction of a plethora of other plant and animal species. A decrease in the deer population and a change in their grazing behaviors allowed trees and new vegetation to grow, which in turn brought new species of animals and insects because habitats and food sources were now flourishing. Additionally, since the environment around it was balanced, a river in Yellowstone also changed its behaviors, allowing for it to flow more uniformly and with decreased erosion. This demonstrates the extent to which each element of an ecosystem is connected to one another and aids in the balance of their ecological community. I believe cases like that of the Yellowstone wolves indicate the necessity for humans to take scrupulous caution when interacting with nature.
Fig. 1: How Wolves Changed Their Environment
Ecology, the study of how organisms interact with their biosphere, teaches us to observe nature and understand its complexities. A biosphere (which consists of both biotic and abiotic entities) exists on the foundations of matter and energy. Ecology teaches that life on Earth is supported and maintained via the flow of solar energy through the biosphere, the continuous cycle of nutrients through the biosphere, and gravity. As nutrients move through the water, soil, air, and rocks, and organisms within ecosystems, life is continually preserved with the same “ingredients” that have always been present in our Earth system. Because of the cyclical and ancient nature of the atoms and elements that make up our world, nutrient cycles bond all life which has ever existed and will exist in the future. An assertion from the text that I found rather beautiful was the fact that carbon atoms in my skin could once have been part of an “oak leaf, a dinosaur’s skin, or a layer of limestone rock,” and the Nitrogen I am breathing could be the same atoms that someone inhaled hundreds or thousands of years ago (Miller 2018, 55).
This idea that everything is connected and working together is highlighted in the four laws of ecology. They are: everything on earth is interdependent, waste cannot simply “go away,” everything costs something, and nature knows best. Understanding and adhering by these laws is key to maintaining balance with the earth. The concept of life as part of an intricate and interdependent system can be seen in Earth’s soil. Soil consists of rock mineral nutrients, decaying organisms, water, air, and living organisms. These components all work together to sustain plants, which in turn allows animals to survive. In other words, death, decay, nutrient cycling, and interacting organisms all play roles in the enabling of life. Similarly, a branch of ecology which proves especially relevant today deals with the fact that there is technically no waste in nature.This is because the remains of life on earth become food or fuel for something else through consumption and nutrient cycles. Because of this, scientists, engineers, and other professionals are beginning to look to food webs to learn how to reduce food and other wastes produced unnaturally by humans. Figure 2 below demonstrates the connection between biotic and abiotic factors of a biosphere, and shows how different areas of nature act together from their individual niches to facilitate and sustain life.
Fig. 2: Interconnections in a Biosphere
Of course, despite the complexity and interdependence of life, humans continue to degrade valuable ecosystems carelessly. An alarming fact highlighted by the text is that Earth’s tropical rainforests are disappearing. This is extremely dangerous for several reasons. First of all, a multitude of plant and animal species risk extinction with the destruction of their habitat, which in turn could lead to the destruction of other species that they help sustain. Additionally, the degradation of our vast tropical rainforests would most likely magnify climate change, as tropical forests absorb a large percentage of atmospheric carbon dioxide. With the consequential changes in climate and weather patterns, recovery and regrowth of the degraded land becomes less likely. Scientists even warn that if we don’t take immediate action, most of these tropical forests could be severely degraded or gone by the end of the century. This shows that humans are not taking necessary measures to salvage the intricate biospheres of Earth. It makes me wonder whether most people are simply uneducated about the ecological consequences of their actions, or whether the majority of humans simply don’t have enough care for the long-term outcomes of anthropogenic activities. Personally, I care a lot about the environment and its intricacies, but even I often find myself turning a blind eye to the reality of my ecological footprint.
In conclusion, the earth is home to an enormous amount of necessary biodiversity whose existence is made possible by the cycling of solar energy through natural energy and nutrient systems. Everything on Earth is connected to and depends on one-another, so the carelessness of humans, who have only been a part of the earth for a fraction of Earth’s history, has led to frightening damage. However, I believe that there is still hope, as ecologists and other scientists are working to educate people about the necessity to learn and grow from nature.
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Question: If humans hadn’t evolved to be the way we are today, and the Earth hadn’t been degraded as it has, how many species would there be on Earth? How much have humans really affected the development of biodiversity in our world?
Brooklyn Pinheiro. May 29, 2017.”How the reintroduction of wolves saved Yellowstone National Park.” Accessed September 8, 2020. https://theplaidzebra.com/how-the-reintroduction-of-wolves-saved-yellowstone-national-park/ .
Miller, G. Tyler, and Scott Spoolman. Living in the Environment. Stamford, CT: Cengage Learning, 2018.
Sustainable Human. “How Wolves Change Rivers.” Sustainable Human, February 13, 2014. YouTube video, 2:19. https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=ysa5OBhXz-Q.