Ecosystem benefits and threats
A harvest from the sea © Anatrack Ltd
Why do you value nature? Is it because you depend on nature for your livelihood, like many people in rural parts of some countries? Do you like to collect wild fruits and fungi or fish or hunt in various ways? In some countries food mainly comes from shops, but in general over a third of people also have strong traditions for gathering food from nature. Maybe you simply like to watch wildlife, perhaps while relieving stress and getting some exercise? If so, you are making use of what are called the productive and cultural services of ecosystems. Wild-fires, floods and outbreaks of pests in crops or homes tend to be the product of ecosystems in which regulating services have been damaged. Everyone depends on ecosystem processes that support breathable air, clean water and tolerable climate.
Ecosystem impacts by humans
Industry may pollute the atmosphere, soil and water © Hramovnick/Shutterstock
When we modify ecosystems for our benefit there may be negative impacts. In fertile areas, grassland, forest and even wetland may be converted to farmland, with monocultures that remove vegetation important to many native species and with a resultant reduction in soil fertility. In areas unsuited to intensive farming, domestic animals may replace wildlife, with further changes through removal of predators and increased grazing pressure on vegetation. In least fertile or accessible areas, such as tundra, wetland and desert, increasing recreation may have negative impacts, leaving little true wilderness. Even without the deliberate impacts by local and visiting communities of humans, the global discharge of plastics, and of pollutants to air and water, reach even remote areas, not to mention global climate change. Other widespread problems occur from unwitting transmission of diseases and introduction of organisms which prove more robust than those present already. All these problems may reduce the services that ecosystems provide for humans and for the other organisms with which we share our world.
Managing human impacts on ecosystems
When problems occur, local communities often discover them and sometimes address them through cost-effective restoration. A range of skills are needed to manage ecosystem services, including the practical efforts of local farmers, foresters, fishers, hunters, wildlife-watchers, gatherers and gardeners, aided by scientists and often funded by governments. The natural richness of ecosystems can be restored to some extent, given adequate time and favourable conditions. Some facets, such as vegetation and small organisms such as insects and other small animals, can be restored rather quickly in many cases; however, mature forests take decades to regenerate, and fertile topsoil may take centuries to replenish. For guiding and enabling such work, scientists and governments need to understand how to encourage and help the efforts of local people. Local people can be encouraged to contribute to conservation and share their knowledge in return for limited and sustainable use of the resources which are enhanced.