What's an "ecosystem" anyway?
The term ecosystem can be used to describe any situation where there is a relationship between organisms and their environment. A biome is similar to an ecosystem but it is more specifically an environment that hosts similar flora, fauna, and microorganisms, such as a tropical rainforest or the arctic tundra. Each biome contains species adapted to the conditions of its water, heat, and soil. For instance, in the desert, a camel has humps to hold water, while in the arctic, a sea lion has layers of fat to keep it warm. Any ecosystem — including ours — consists of plants, animals, and microorganisms functioning together as a balanced unit. When the balance is disturbed, the ecosystem fails. An ecosystem can only accommodate so many organisms. Fire, disease, and predators will often help maintain balance in an ecosystem.
A few examples of ecosystems include a coral reef, a rainforest, and the human ecosystem.
What's the Human Ecosystem?
If you are reading this, you are human – we presume! — therefore you are likely most concerned with the 'human ecosystem'. Since human beings have trod on just about every surface of the earth — from the highest peaks to the deepest seas — all ecosystems can be accurately considered to be influenced by humans. How we live — the garbage and pollution we produce — is showing up as damage to life in the oceans, as well as in the animal and plant kingdoms. These systems touch all of us.
To bring it home, every action taken by you in your hometown affects the ecosystem in which you live. For example, freshwater ecosystems, such as lakes, are losing species and letting invaders in, damaging domestic water supplies. Evidence points to dam construction and biological invasions as major culprits in these losses. Sometimes, in solving one problem, we introduce another.
How does our behavior impact the natural world?
About 150 species of flora and fauna go extinct every day, a rate that is 100 to 1000 times higher than a natural extinction process. We're really not able to isolate human ecosystems from the rest of the systems on the planet. Some ecosystems are probably already damaged beyond repair, and other systems will be badly wounded unless protective measures are taken. Here are the predictions from the 2008 report, "The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity," commissioned by the European Union. By the year 2050, under a "business-as-usual" scenario:
- 11 percent of natural areas remaining in 2000 could be lost due to conversion to agriculture, development, and climate change;
- 40 percent of land currently under low-impact agriculture could become intensively farmed, accelerating biodiversity losses;
- 60 percent of coral reefs could be lost, directly affecting the livelihood of a billion people.
Learn more about specific situations:
Watch Altered Oceans: A really incredible in-depth, multimedia presentation on the state of the Oceans from the LA Times.
About the Series: Kenneth R. Weiss, a Los Angeles Times staff member since 1990 was inspired by scientific lectures and papers describing a gradual but profound transformation of the world's oceans, marked by the decline of fish and marine mammals and the proliferation of primitive life forms — algae, bacteria, jellyfish.
Weiss began reporting this series in 2005 and traveled widely — to Australia, Panama and Jamaica; to Midway, Palmyra Atoll and the Hawaiian Islands; and up and down the coasts of California, Washington, Florida and Georgia. Times photographer Rick Loomis joined him and Times reporter Usha Lee McFarling contributed to the series.
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