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The environment is all around us. An ecosystem refers to the interaction between living organisms and their surroundings. This interaction had existed before humans, right since life first evolved on the Earth. But no form of life has impacted ecosystems the way humans have. The impacts of humans on ecosystems are both positive and negative. But we can all agree that we affect the environment more negatively than positively.
Humans are a threat to the planet’s biodiversity. The main reason why we are a threat is our population. The human population has grown exponentially over the past few decades and continues to grow. Our increasing numbers increase the demand for food, energy, space, and resources. To meet the demands of an ever-increasing population, we need to clear forest land. Clearing forest land results in many wild species losing their homes, resulting in biodiversity loss. Our industries release toxic material into the environment, polluting the Earth’s air and water and destroying marine habitats. In 2019, marine heatwaves due to global warming bleached 60% of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. This is just one example of the disastrous impacts we have on ecosystems. We can confidently summarize that the more humans there are on this planet, the more the planet’s biodiversity and species are lost.
Scientists have estimated that from 1970 to 2016, human activities have destroyed around 68% of the world’s wildlife. Since the dawn of human civilization, the Earth has lost 83% of wild animals, 50% of plants, 15% of fish, and 80% of marine mammals. Human activities have pushed around one million species of plants and animals to the brink of extinction. Scientists have predicted that many endangered species will go extinct in the next few decades.
Biodiversity loss threatens the productivity of ecosystems all around the world. Our increasing population’s demand for food has caused the clearing of vast tracts of natural land for agriculture. Every species of plant, no matter how tiny or insignificant they may seem to humans, has a major role to play in the functioning of ecosystems. We now use more than half of the habitable land on Earth for agriculture. Increased agriculture is one of the main reasons for the extinction of wild plant species.
Global warming is one of the single largest impacts of humans on ecosystems. Humans continue to release increasing amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere every year. The highest ever recorded level of CO2 before 1950 was 300 ppm. Current day levels of CO2 exceed 400 ppm, breaking every record in the last 4,00,000 years. The emissions of CO2 have led to the increase in the temperature of the Earth by one full degree. This may sound insignificant, but an increase of even a degree makes the difference between life and death for many species.
As temperatures increase, the ice and glaciers at the poles melt, and sea levels rise. The rise in sea levels means more water is available to absorb more heat, which results in more ice melting. All these factors create a positive feedback loop, raising the level of the oceans and melting more ice. Our chances of reversing this loop are getting smaller and smaller by the day.
Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) have contributed significantly to the survival of humans. GMOs are selectively bred crops or crops with altered DNA. Because of their alterations, GMOs can survive in extreme temperatures and weather events like floods and droughts. However, the creation of GMOs is not always intentional.
Humans have been using glyphosate as a herbicide to kill weeds among croplands for many years now. However, just as a human’s immune system learns to recognize and fight against invaders, weeds too have evolved to resist 22 of 25 known herbicides. These ‘super weeds’, as scientists now call them, threaten farmers’ livelihoods and supply chains of food by choking crops. The solution to removing weeds is to till the land. But, tilling land causes it to dry off faster. Tilling also kills good bacteria, making soil lose fertility more quickly.
Ocean acidification is probably one of the most disastrous impacts of humans on ecosystems. Ocean acidification happens when CO2 bonds and mixes with seawater, creating carbonic acid. The acid reduces the pH level of seawater. Ocean acidity has changed by almost 30% in the last 200 years, reaching a level it has never been at before.
The increased acidity interferes with calcium concentrations. A stable calcium concentration is vital for crustaceans to build their shells. Without their shells, they are defenceless against predators. With ocean acidification and global warming raising the temperature of oceans, scientists say that a quarter of all coral reefs have been damaged beyond repair.
25% of all aquatic life builds homes in coral reefs. Coral reefs filter ocean water and produce nutrients crucial for all life in the sea.
It is crucial that we learn to support our planet. We have impacted and continue to impact the Earth’s ecosystems in so many harmful ways. We must be aware of the consequences of our actions and learn to be environmentally conscious.
Whether we and our future generations get to live on this Earth or not depends solely on our actions today. Mother Nature is a powerful, unforgiving force. But if we can make up for all the harm we’ve caused to the environment and its wild species, she might just forgive us. We must try and reverse the impacts of humans on ecosystems.
It is so easy to blame governments for not doing enough for the Earth. But the change must start with you, with every single individual. We cannot expect the poles to suddenly stop melting overnight. But small changes in your lifestyle, such as carrying your own cloth bag to go grocery shopping, do go a long way in protecting our ecosystems. Every human around the world making one tiny positive change in their life equals one giant step forward for the Earth. The time to act is long gone. But starting with change today is much better than starting tomorrow.