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Ecosystem (Ecological System)

Posted By : Anubhav Posted on : 08 Apr, 2015 Comments : 0

Definition and history

The term ecosystem, a contraction of the words ecological system, is really just a way of thinking of all the components, living and inanimate, of a geographically-defined environment as a single system.

An ecosystem can be as small as a pond or as large as a rainforest, you can even build your own in a garden or fish tank. Humans create larger ecosystems too, either agricultural or urban and have certainly had an effect on natural ecosystems, often a very damaging effect.

Groups of similar ecosystems are called biomes; for example, the Arctic Tundra is considered a biome and the world's largest biome is the open sea.

The term was first defined in Arthur Tansley's 1935 paper, The Use and Abuse of Vegetational Concepts and Terms. Tansley was expanding on the work of fellow British botanist Arthur Clapham whom he had asked to coin a term to cover both the physical and living parts of an environment.

Ecosystems are analysed and studied as unique entities. This study is a complex as the systems themselves. However, all ecosystems feature an energy input such as the sun's heat which keeps life in the system going. Living organisms are classified into hierarchical food chains and webs and water, oxygen, carbon, nitrogen and phosphorous cycles are studied too.

Types of ecosystems

Ecosystems are most often classified by the type of vegetation that predominates and the climate area in which they are found, for example, tropical rain forests are classified as, ''tropical ombrophilous forests'' according to the Unesco Vegetation Classification System, just one of the classification systems ecologists use.

Biomes - geographical areas of similar ecosystems - can be split into six types: freshwater, marine, desert, forest, grassland and tundra.

These can be further divided.

Freshwater ecosystems are: ponds and lakes; streams and rivers and wetlands. Wetlands include bogs, swamps and marshes and contain the most species of any of the planet's ecosystems.

Marine ecosystems are: oceanscoral reefs and estuaries. The oceans are the world's largest ecosystems and are considered to cover the shore as far as tidal waters come in.

Desert ecosystems are: hot and dry deserts, semiarid, coastal and cold. While we often think of deserts and heats as synonymous, parts of the Arctic and Antarctic are classified as deserts because of their low rainfall.

Forest ecosystems are: tropical, temperate and boreal. Tropical forests include the great rainforests, which, with their incredible diversity of species and importance as carbon sinks are a focus for environmentalists. Boreal forests, also called taiga, are the largest biome on land.

Grasslands are: tropical (or savannas) and temperate. Temperate grasslands include the great American prairies and the Russian steppe.

Tundra ecosystems are: arctic and alpine.

WWF and National Geographic have classified the world into 867 ecoregions (essentially ecosystems) and you can find detailed profiles of them all here.

Preserving ecosystems

All ecosystems change; they are dynamic, living things. However, human activity has done a great deal to damage the planet's natural ecosystems, through pollution, exploitation of natural resources and even (the often well-intentioned) introduction of outside species.

The environmental and conservation movements have, over time, widened their focus from single species preservation to recognition that the complexity of nature means that the environment as a whole must be protected. The growing study of and awareness of biodiversity has encouraged this holistic approach in the green movement.

The United Nations Convention on Biodiversity (UNCBD), which was unveiled at the so-called Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, includes an 'ecosystems approach' to conservation, recognising the complexity of preserving the natural world while allowing humans to live sustainably.

The UNCBD studies ecosystems to try and determine their value, for example, this study looks at forest ecosystems.

This approach has also led to the recognition of what we take from natural ecosystems, so-called ecosystem services, for example forests provide us with timber, which is an extractive use, but may also provide economic activity as a venue for ecotourism. Governments who have signed up to the UNCBD should be taking this approach to their efforts to conserve the environments in their country.


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