Our Biosphere is this incredibly sufficient regulator of life, composed of abiotic systems and biota living and thriving from these systems. Earths atmosphere is the perfect green/ blue home for individual species and populations that coexist within their communities and ecosystem, providing space for a harmonious life, food, shelter, and evolution of all. It also generates our weather systems, regulates planet temperature through reflection or absorption of the sun’s energy, and transportation of the heat through ocean currents to areas that might not have as much access to it. These systems are what has determined what species develop within given areas, which means they are not as well adapted if you move them into a different ecosystem or change something in their habitat.
Fish can’t fly, and we can’t sleep underwater, right?
It is important to highlight that different species within one ecosystem evolved to coexist. If there is a collapse in one population such as krill, the whole oceanic system is affected. The primary food for some of the whales’ species would vanish, leaving them to either starve or look for other ways to feed, pushing them to move into different ecosystems like colder or warmer oceans. Losing krill will also mean more algae in the oceans that could result in the poising of other fish species, which would have an affecting our own food chain. I know we all love phytoplankton for its incredible ability to absorb CO2 and produce about 70% of Earth’s ox, but some of these little fellas when partying in larger volumes can produce biotoxins which if consumed at large by marine life can cause some fish to OD. When taking only one organism out of the equation, you are affecting the entire community, making the ecosystem pyramid slowly collapse and create disorder. Biodiversity in all its forms and applications is a key to a healthy life, healthy ecosystem and a healthy planet.
The collapse of species:
There is a natural background species extinction rate close to 0.1 E/MSY (0.01 species extinction/ per million species/ per year), which has been based on data from the previous epoch of life on earth (exclusive Caveman stats found drawn in caves during the ice age lol). Unfortunately, due to human intervention, we are facing an increasing rate of 1,000 to 10,000 times higher, leading us to the 6th mass extinction during our Holocene epoch- the era of man.
Over the centuries, homo-sapiens have evolved very successfully like many other invasive species, as we have managed to reproduce and live much longer thanks to the invention of modern medicine, and we are now making the ecosystems work for us rather than us working with it. We have figured out how to extract natural resources extremely well and make them into products and services that run local socioeconomic and global economics. We no longer need to just survive, we want to live and enjoy our time on this planet. As a result, we clash with the natural world all the time, and it is, unfortunately, the natural world that is at a loss in a majority of these interactions.
Crop and livestock farming covers more than 33% of Earth’s land surface (that’s 50% of actual habitual land and 77% of that is crops for animal feed and livestock which only accounts for 18% of the world’s calories and 37% of total protein) and 75% of its freshwater resources are directed into food farming. Research shows that it is our agricultural activities that are driving habitat destruction and species extinction most of the time. As you might already guess biggest contributors are cutting down rainforests for livestock or feed farming such as soy, aquaculture, bottom trawling fishing practices, and over-farming soil with the same crops which as a result reduced the biodiversity of microbes in the soil, leaving earth low in nutrients (this is being addressed with rotation of crops grown on the same soil during different seasons as different plants introduce different nutrients into the ground, and regenerative agriculture is also in plan to be a major turn for our soil quality).
To maintain diversity in ecosystems, we have to identify that we as human species have full control over every ecosystem there is, and every species from the Great Blue Whale to Arizona Agave to Titicaca Water Frog. We have enough power of compassion, innovative thinking, and knowledge of the past, that can only help us navigate through the R&D of the future generations, tackling species extinction and global warming alongside the 17 UN sustainability goals.
Collapse of Ecosystems
Based in Central Asia, on the borders of Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, the Aral Sea was the world’s 4th largest terminal lake (collection of water in the basin without exit river delta into the oceans).
More than 24 species of fish have supplied the local economy and smaller communities with 30,000-35,000 tons of fish every year, making it the primary income and food source.
As the lake depends on temperature and weather conditions to regulate its size due to the lack of exit river delta, the sea has been known to shrink and grow naturally over centuries. Since the expansion of the Syr Dar’ya and Amu Dar’ya rivers irrigation system by the Soviet Union, the surface of the sea started to decline, resulting in total estimated shrinkage from 67,499 km2 to 17, 382 km2 since the 1960s, therefore surpassing the collapse threshold (39,734 – 55,700 km2) during 1976-1989. Sea level has fallen by 23m, area shrunk by 74%, volume decreased by 90%, and salinity of the water grew from 10 to more than 100g/l (grams per litre), changing the whole local ecology. The sea injured decline of native fish species, dust/salt storms occurred, biotic communities have shrunken, and climate and weather systems have changed around the former shoreline due to lack of evaporation, moisture in the air, and precipitation.
The environmental changes within the area have also affected the local communities, increasing respiratory illnesses and other diseases due to the high salinity of the soil and air. These, and many other factors are the key reasons why the IUCN have listed the Aral sea as Collapsed Ecosystem on their RLE. This means that the ecosystem that use to exist within the area, is past its saving point, and even if the lake might once again become this versatile body of life, the biota will never repopulate to its previous biodiversity.
IUCN has done a great conceptual graph explaining positive and negative environmental and anthropogenic influences on ecosystem processes and components, that has impacted the sea collapse over time.
When I first read about this disaster I was honestly shocked. Like serious WTF, how comes there is no noise made about this on media?! Such a great body of water, the 4th largest lake in the world, supporting so much life, has just slowly evaporated before our eyes. A whole ecosystem has collapsed, and most people have never even heard about this issue! I didn’t know about this until recently! It’s just mind-blowing to me. I am glad I have somehow come across this on the IUCN RLE website, so now I can express myself through writing, highlighting just how big of an impact human intervention can have on a vulnerable ecosystem.
This might sound very doom and glume, but we have to learn from our mistakes. It is unfortunately disasters like this that allows us to review what has done wrong, why it has gone wrong, what are the consequences, and how we can apply this to other vulnerable ecosystems around the world to make sure that this does not happen again.
To save the world from ourselves, it takes collaboration and knowledge sharing between countries. Since the 70s there has been an increase in growing relationships between NGOs and the governing bodies supporting the conservation of biodiversity and grow the number of Protected Natural Areas all over the world, resulting in a legislative collaboration that provides research and resources to protect national parks and areas of great natural value such as Congo Virunga National Park which is UNESCO World Heritage Site (which is a home to last mountain gorillas).
Protection of these very sensitive areas is crucial as this puts a barrier between the vulnerable and critically endangered ecosystem, and human monetary interest such as oil drilling, natural gas fracking or other disruptive mining activities. Again we can use innovation to create other solution for these cheap resources that are less harmful to the environment, but we just need a little more time and collaboration with local communities, providing them with incentives which will, in the end, want them to help and preserve these protected areas.
Politics, poverty, illegal animal trade, human trafficking, illegal substances trade, socio-economics issues, dictatorship etc, are all interlinked factors that determine the survival of biodiversity, and all are driven by very determined corporations. Sometimes it might feel like we have no power over these entities as these are so far out from our reality, but we can always do what feels right by us. With the knowledge that we have, we can choose to invest our money and our vote in products, banks, NGOs, politicians and other organisation that help tackle the issues of biodiversity decline and other issues that are true to your heart, such as equality, human rights, education, poverty, health care and ait in developing countries. Research the product that you buy, the banks you invest in with, your local party representatives to see if they align with what you feel is the right things to do. Don’t just go by what your thing is the majority vote or what is the norm in the area.
I know for sure when I’m back in the UK there will be a few things I will be changing about, as I’m always growing and developing, and I will continue to do so as I want to invest in life and a better future for people and whole ecosystems on this planet. It is never too late to change your mind, no matter what age you are, you always can make a difference.
Links to Refenreces:
- Society for Conservation Biology- Estimating the normal background rate of species extinction.
- Live Science- Holocene Epoch
- Red List of Ecosystems- Aral Sea
- Nature Report- Humans are driving one million species to extinction
- National Geographic- Aral Sea’s Eastern Basin Is Dry for First Time in 600 Years
- National Geographic- Phytoplankton
- Aral Conference- Fishing
- Annual Review- Aral Sea Disaster– size and volume changes
- UN Report- Nature’s Dangerous Decline ‘Unprecedented’; Species Extinction Rates ‘Accelerating’
- Our World in Data- Land Use
- Our World in Data- Protected Areas and Conservation
- UN- 17 Sustainability goals