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Environment, all of the external factors affecting an organism. These factors may be other living organisms (biotic factors) or nonliving variables (abiotic factors), such as temperature, rainfall, day length, wind, and ocean currents. The interactions of organisms with biotic and abiotic factors form an ecosystem. Even minute changes in any one factor in an ecosystem can influence whether or not a particular plant or animal species will be successful in its environment.
Organisms and their environment constantly interact, and both are changed by this interaction. Like all other living creatures, humans have clearly changed their environment, but they have done so generally on a grander scale than have all other species. Some of these human-induced changes—such as the destruction of the world’s tropical rain forests to create farms or grazing land for cattle—have led to altered climate patterns (see Global Warming). In turn, altered climate patterns have changed the way animals and plants are distributed in different ecosystems.
Scientists study the long-term consequences of human actions on the environment, while environmentalists—professionals in various fields, as well as concerned citizens—advocate ways to lessen the impact of human activity on the natural world.
The science of ecology attempts to explain why plants and animals live where they do and why their populations are the sizes they are. Understanding the distribution and population size of organisms helps scientists evaluate the health of the environment.
In 1840 German chemist Justus von Liebig first proposed that populations cannot grow indefinitely, a basic principle now known as the Law of the Minimum. Biotic and abiotic factors, singly or in combination, ultimately limit the size that any population may attain. This size limit, known as a population’s carrying capacity, occurs when needed resources, such as food, breeding sites, and water, are in short supply. For example, the amount of nutrients in soil influences the amount of wheat that grows on a farm. If just one soil nutrient, such as nitrogen, is missing or below optimal levels, fewer healthy wheat plants will grow.
Population size and distribution may also be affected, either directly or indirectly, by the way species in an ecosystem interact with one another. In an experiment performed in the late 1960s in the rocky tidal zone along the Pacific Coast of the United States, American ecologist Robert Paine studied an area that contained 15 species of invertebrates, including starfish, mussels, limpets, barnacles, and chitons. Paine found that in this ecosystem one species of starfish preyed heavily on a species of mussel, preventing that mussel population from multiplying and monopolizing space in the tidal zone. When Paine removed the starfish from the area, he found that the mussel population quickly increased in size, crowding out most other organisms from rock surfaces. The number of invertebrate species in the ecosystem soon dropped to eight species. Paine concluded that the loss of just one species, the starfish, indirectly led to the loss of an additional six species and a transformation of the ecosystem.
Typically, the species that coexist in ecosystems have evolved together for many generations. These populations have established balanced interactions with each other that enable all populations in the area to remain relatively stable. Occasionally, however, natural or human-made disruptions occur that have unforeseen consequences to populations in an ecosystem. For example, 17th-century sailors routinely introduced goats to isolated oceanic islands, intending for the goats to roam freely and serve as a source of meat when the sailors returned to the islands during future voyages. As nonnative species free from all natural predators, the goats thrived and, in the process, overgrazed many of the islands. With a change in plant composition, many of the native animal species on the islands were driven to extinction. A simple action, the introduction of goats to an island, yielded many changes in the island ecosystem, demonstrating that all members of a community are closely interconnected.
To better understand the impact of natural and human disruptions on the Earth, in 1991 the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) began to use artificial satellites to study global change. NASA’s undertaking, called Earth Science Enterprise, is part of an international effort linking numerous satellites into a single Earth Observing System (EOS). EOS collects information about the interactions occurring in the atmosphere, on land, and in the oceans, and these data help scientists and lawmakers make sound environmental policy decisions.
The problems facing the environment are vast and diverse. Global warming, the depletion of the ozone layer in the atmosphere, and destruction of the world’s rain forests are just some of the problems that many scientists believe will reach critical proportions in the coming decades. All of these problems will be directly affected by the size of the human population.
Human population growth is at the root of virtually all of the world’s environmental problems. Although the growth rate of the world’s population has slowed slightly since the 1990s, the world’s population increases by about 77 million human beings each year. As the number of people increases, crowding generates pollution, destroys more habitats, and uses up additional natural resources.
The Population Division of the United Nations (UN) predicts that the world’s population will increase from 6.23 billion people in 2000 to 9.3 billion people in 2050. The UN estimates that the population will stabilize at more than 11 billion in 2200. Other experts predict that numbers will continue to rise into the foreseeable future, to as many as 19 billion people by the year 2200.
Although rates of population increase are now much slower in the developed world than in the developing world, it would be a mistake to assume that population growth is primarily a problem of developing countries. In fact, because larger amounts of resources per person are used in developed nations, each individual from the developed world has a much greater environmental impact than does a person from a developing country. Conservation strategies that would not significantly alter lifestyles but that would greatly lessen environmental impact are essential in the developed world.
In the developing world, meanwhile, the most important factors necessary to lower population growth rates are democracy and social justice. Studies show that population growth rates have fallen in developing areas where several social conditions exist. In these areas, literacy rates have increased and women receive economic status equal to that of men, enabling women to hold jobs and own property. In addition, birth control information in these areas is more widely available, and women are free to make their own reproductive decisions.
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Like the glass panes in a greenhouse, certain gases in the Earth’s atmosphere permit the Sun’s radiation to heat Earth. At the same time, these gases retard the escape into space of the infrared energy radiated back out by Earth. This process is referred to as the greenhouse effect. These gases, primarily carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and water vapor, insulate Earth’s surface, helping to maintain warm temperatures. Without these gases, Earth would be a frozen planet with an average temperature of about -18°C (about 0°F) instead of a comfortable 15°C (59°F). If the concentration of these gases rises, they trap more heat within the atmosphere, causing worldwide temperatures to rise.
Shrinking Greenland Ice Sheet
The Greenland ice sheet underwent extensive surface melting from 1992 to 2002, according to the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment report released in 2004. Tinted areas in these satellite images show the extent of surface melting in 1992 and in 2002. The report warned that the melting of Greenland’s ice sheet and the melting of glaciers in Alaska and Canada are increasingly contributing to a rise in the world’s sea level.
Clifford Grabhorn/Courtesy of ACIA 2004
Within the last century, the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has increased dramatically, largely because people burn vast amounts of fossil fuels—coal and petroleum and its derivatives. Average global temperature also has increased—by about 0.6 Celsius degree (1 Fahrenheit degree) within the past century. Atmospheric scientists have found that at least half of that temperature increase can be attributed to human activity. They predict that unless dramatic action is taken, global temperature will continue to rise by 1.4 to 5.8 Celsius degrees (2.5 to 10.4 Fahrenheit degrees) over the next century. Although such an increase may not seem like a great difference, during the last ice age the global temperature was only 2.2 Celsius degrees (4 Fahrenheit degrees) cooler than it is presently.
The consequences of such a modest increase in temperature may be devastating. Already scientists have detected a 40 percent reduction in the average thickness of Arctic ice. Other problems that may develop include a rise in sea levels that will completely inundate a number of low-lying island nations and flood many coastal cities, such as New York and Miami. Many plant and animal species will probably be driven into extinction, agriculture will be severely disrupted in many regions, and the frequency of severe hurricanes and droughts will likely increase.
Ozone Layer Hole
The ozone hole over the South Pole is apparent in this false-color image taken by a satellite in October 1999. Low levels of ozone are shown in blue. Ozone is a gas that blocks harmful ultraviolet sunlight. Industrial chemicals released into the atmosphere have caused ozone to break down, opening holes in the ozone layer that tend to concentrate at the poles.
The ozone layer, a thin band in the stratosphere (layer of the upper atmosphere), serves to shield Earth from the Sun’s harmful ultraviolet rays. In the 1970s, scientists discovered that chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs)—chemicals used in refrigeration, air-conditioning systems, cleaning solvents, and aerosol sprays—destroy the ozone layer. CFCs release chlorine into the atmosphere; chlorine, in turn, breaks down ozone molecules. Because chlorine is not affected by its interaction with ozone, each chlorine molecule has the ability to destroy a large amount of ozone for an extended period of time.
The consequences of continued depletion of the ozone layer would be dramatic. Increased ultraviolet radiation would lead to a growing number of skin cancers and cataracts and also reduce the ability of immune systems to respond to infection. Additionally, growth of the world’s oceanic plankton, the base of most marine food chains, would decline. Plankton contains photosynthetic organisms that break down carbon dioxide. If plankton populations decline, it may lead to increased carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere and thus to global warming. Recent studies suggest that global warming, in turn, may increase the amount of ozone destroyed. Even if the manufacture of CFCs is immediately banned, the chlorine already released into the atmosphere will continue to destroy the ozone layer for many decades.
In 1987 an international pact called the Montréal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer set specific targets for all nations to achieve in order to reduce emissions of chemicals responsible for the destruction of the ozone layer. Many people had hoped that this treaty would cause ozone loss to peak and begin to decline by the year 2000. In fact, in the fall of 2000, the hole in the ozone layer over Antarctica was the largest then recorded. The hole the following year was slightly smaller, leading some to believe that the depletion of ozone had stabilized. However, in 2006 U.S. government scientists reported that the ozone loss over Antarctica reached its greatest extent ever that year. Ozone loss can vary with temperature, and many scientists believe that the 2006 record loss was due to lower-than-normal temperatures. These scientists report that although CFC levels in the atmosphere peaked in 2001, many of these chemicals are long-lasting. They believe the ozone layer over Antarctica may not fully recover until 2065