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Interaction between Environment and Biota

Interaction between Environment and Biota

Let's imagine a line representing a continuum or a "straight horizon". Now let us have some up and down lines in that graph, relative to that first straight line.

Surprisingly, both can be examples of stability or equilibrium. More often than not, the up and down lines are what maintains the equilibrium. At some point in the "lifespan" of a graph, a state of non-variation and "graph silence" is reached, even if temporarily. It depends on how closely you zoom in, or out of it.

On Earth, variance on the equilibrium line is also driven by the push-and-pull evolutionary processes. These are affected by the predator-prey (biodiversity) interactions. The stability of an ecosystem on Earth is the result of an ongoing feedback loop that follows patterns. Stability in nature very rarely follows a straight line.

Let's analyse the concept of environmental stability and its biota below.

Biota and the Environment (Meaning)

The environment encompasses all elements that surround us.

Biota, or biodiversity, refers to all life in an ecosystem. This includes the Bacteria, Archaea, and Eukarya domains. Basically, everything from microorganisms to large mammals.

Biota are the backbone of environmental stability, maintaining the functioning of ecosystems and keeping services like clean water and air "running". Biotic matter also releases nutrients, which can then be decomposed and used by other organisms.

During their lifespan, some species help fixate chemical compounds such as nitrogen, or help filtrate particulates from water. Microorganisms called diazotrophs, for example, naturally fixate nitrogen in soils by converting it into ammonia (NH3) or other compounds like nitrites and nitrates. Plants like white clover "house" such bacteria in their roots.

When thinking about environmental stability, it is important to consider homeostasis. If you have a look at the previous lesson's Key takeaway (The Living Environment) you will probably get the gist of this chapter pretty quickly: "We are part of a distinct global ecosystem that is constantly trying to achieve homeostasis."

Let's dive further into a definition by S. K. Ernest (2008):

Homeostasis is the ability of ecological systems to maintain stable system properties despite perturbations. Properties of systems reflect the system as a whole and are not solely determined by the identity of the species in the system.

But why do we need to know this?

It's because the environment and the biota define each other. Below, you will see the most important factors determining these interactions that maintain stable living conditions.

Environmental Stability Definition

A stable and resilient ecosystem structure is less affected by the changing numbers of one species because there are other species that can fulfil the same or a similar role.

Environmental or ecosystem stability refers to the capacity to remain relatively unchanged in function and structure over large periods of time and despite perturbations.

In an unstable ecosystem, there is a singular link in a process (e.g. x can only be pollinated by y) which makes that type of interaction (e.g. pollination) vulnerable to change because nothing else can replace it.

Perturbations can occur due to the change of seasons, ageing of organisms, migrations, or anthropogenic activities. Perturbations can be both biotic and abiotic.

Some changes may occur due to ecological succession.

Ecological Succession

Ecological succession is a natural process that happens when one ecosystem type is slowly colonized by different species. Succeeding species usually replace the species that had arrived first, called pioneer species. On Earth, this process is cyclical and helps balance ecosystems. We can distinguish between primary and secondary succession.

Primary succession happens when life is eliminated by abiotic factors such as volcanism or glaciation, due to which previously biotic environments cannot sustain the growth of organisms. It starts with barren environments.

Secondary succession refers to a partial extinction event where the environment is not entirely barren and can still host some life. Examples of events that generate this type of succession include wildfires and floods.

Hundreds of years or more can pass for one of these processes to complete a cycle.

You can split ecological succession into four stages as follows:

  • Nudation: the formation of an area devoid of life, for example, due to extreme events like volcanism.
  • Invasion: the establishment or arrival of the first species.
  • Competition and reaction: increased species numbers and food availability leading to competition and habitat change.
  • Stabilization or climax: a relative state of equilibrium maintained by the terminal community.

Human activity can cause the ecological succession process within ecosystems to happen faster than nature intended. Examples include habitat fragmentation and introduced species. Extreme disturbances, which include natural or anthropogenic phenomena like sudden radiation bursts or emissions, can irreversibly alter ecosystems.

Disturbances can be an important part of ecosystems when natural, exactly because they can trigger or stimulate succession. A disturbance's size, frequency, intensity and timing can all affect the rate and direction of successional change (e.g., whether a community recovers its original composition).

Abiotic drivers of succession, such as global warming, produce what is known as an allogenic succession.

Biotic drivers of succession, such as competition for shelter, are classified under the term autogenic succession.

Species succession

  • Environments don't necessarily follow a linear pattern of succession, nor do they have to go through or complete all successional stages. Below we can distinguish three categories (pioneers, late-succession, ruderal) used for plant, bacteria and fungi species that succeed each other in an environment. Animal species are also affected by these cycles.

In a new environment, the first organisms to colonize barren or nutrient-poor mediums like barren sand or clear water are typically called pioneer species. When overall biodiversity is low, the pioneers, also known as early-successionals, don't have to compete for resources.

Climax or late-succession species follow up the pioneers and, being better competitors than colonizers, dominate a climax community. In a climax community, nutrient up-cycling and energy consumption may have reached a relative peak and will remain stable for large periods of time (on Earth, hundreds of years) until perturbations start to occur.

Ruderal species are those that colonize heavily disturbed habitats, such as contaminated sites. Ruderal species may be placed in the same category as the pioneers, or may be considered a subdivision of pioneer species, as their colonization strategies are similar. Both are succeeded by climax species.

In all these cases, animal species may be moving in and out of these systems due to their increased mobility when compared to plants.

Lichens (e.g. Lecidea inops) are general pioneer species in the primary succession of rocks. They help with the formation of soil through rock weathering and producing acids. ‘Ōhi‘a lehua (Metrosideros polymorpha) is a native Hawaiian pioneer plant that prefers volcanic mediums and is usually the first native flowering plant to grow in such soils1. On the other hand, Cannabis ruderalis is an example of a plant that grows in nutrient-poor soils such as urban rubble, where not much else grows. It is considered a ruderal plant and a weed due to its invasive potential, more than a classical pioneer species. However, many pioneers can become invasive in altered ecosystems.

Environmental Stability Factors

Biota are the great regulators of Earth's environmental stability because they occur in every habitat on the planet, from the coldest polar regions to the hottest deserts. Populations need to respond to changes and strive to achieve environmental stability thresholds, in order to pass on their genes.


Biotic factors that contribute to environmental stability include:

  • Biogeochemical regulation: biota mediate the most important cycles on earth, such as the carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, water and phosphorus cycles. These cycles affect atmospheric, water and soil quality, among others.

  • Nutrient cycling and dispersal: salt-eating organisms (e.g. elks, reindeer, humans) will seek and incorporate salt minerals into their diets. Excretion then spreads the obtained sodium and chloride in a variety of habitats.

  • Pollutant levels control: microbial bioremediation.

Interaction Between Environment and Biota (examples)

Interactions between the environment and its biotic component can be both direct and indirect. A direct interaction can be represented by an organism directly using sunlight or consuming another organism. An indirect interaction can be that of an organism helping the growth of another by predating on its consumer (see the example below).

Deer feed on willow and aspen saplings and inhibit their growth in certain areas. Wolf predation of deer indirectly aids the willow and aspen growth success rate. This in turn influences the soil quality where those saplings grow.

Below are a few examples of interactions.

  • Respiration: the exchange of gases between organisms and their environment.

  • Disease: organisms interacting with the abiotic factors in their environment influence disease processes.

  • Decomposition: both biotic and abiotic elements help decompose carcasses which then become hummus, e.g. beetles and water.
  • Carbon sequestration: When organisms such as plankton die, they fall to the bottom of the ocean, sequestering carbon away from the atmosphere.
  • Trophic interactions: foraging and hunting - herbivores, omnivores and carnivores are interlocked in trophic interactions and provide nutrients from these interactions such as urine, faeces, honey, or carcasses.

  • Sunlight usage: Autotrophs (primary producers) may use photosynthesis. Heterotrophs (organisms consuming others for energy) such as iguanas and humans use direct sunlight to synthesize vitamin D2.

  • Rain and moisture: Perspiration - plants transpire most of the water they absorb, aid cloud formation, and even influence wind patterns3. Water and moisture also influence organisms' rate of decomposition and the ability of an environment to sequester carbon4.

  • Ambient temperature control: Shading - trees in a 2010 study5 significantly reduced soil (over 8 degrees C) and air temperature (over 2 degrees C) compared to unshaded areas during hot seasons.


Earth's biota plays an important role in the regulation of biogeochemical cycles and ecosystem services provision. Without them, our freshwater resources would be less clean, gaseous oxygen non-existent, and we'd have to eat molten rocks! Joking, we are part of the biota too, so we basically wouldn't be here either. I hope you enjoyed the article, and don't forget to check the following ones!


Biota and Environment Stability - Key takeaways

  • Biota refers to all organisms (belonging to the Bacteria, Archaea, and Eukarya domains) in an ecosystem. They are essential for maintaining environmental stability.
  • Biodiversity health is necessary for keeping ecosystems in balance and providing services that humans rely on.
  • Without biota, humans wouldn't have access to important resources like food, clean water, and air filtration.
  • Ecological stability is determined by its regenerative and successional qualities, as well as complexity. Succession can be primary and secondary, as well as allogenic or autogenic.
  • A variety of interactions occurs between the biota and their environment, including breathing, nutrient dispersal, ambient temperature control, perspiration, etc.

References

  1. Hawai‘i Forest Institute & Hawai‘i Forest Industry Association, ‘Ōhi‘a lehua, 2016. Accessed 28.05.22
  2. L. Callum et al., Requirements for natural sunlight to prevent vitamin D deficiency in iguanian lizards, 2001. Accessed 28.05.22
  3. J. S. Wright et al., Rainforest-initiated wet season onset over the southern Amazon, 2017. Accessed 28.05.22
  4. J. Zhai et al., Decomposition responses of plant litter to interactive effects of flooding and salinity in Yellow River Delta wetland, 2021. Accessed 28.05.22
  5. B. Lin et al., Cooling Effect of Shade Trees with Different Characteristics, 2010. Accessed 28.05.22
  6. S.K. Ernest, Homeostasis, 2008. Accessed 28.05.22

Frequently Asked Questions about Interaction between Environment and Biota

Environmental or ecosystem stability refers to its capacity to remain relatively unchanged in function and structure over large periods of time and despite perturbations. 

Environmental stability ensures water, soil and air quality, as well as nutrient cycling, temperature and humidity control, etc.

Organisms influence nutrient and food availability, relative humidity levels, ambient temperature,  carbon sequestration, and the overall homeostasis of the Earth.

Biota's importance is determined by their ability to influence all of Earth's abiotic systems (lithosphere, atmosphere, hydrosphere, cryosphere) and also by the fact that they represent all life on Earth.

Breathing, perspiration, decomposition, sunlight processing, shading, etc.

Final Interaction between Environment and Biota Quiz

Question

What are some examples of factors that can influence environment stability?

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Answer

Biotic (inter-species competition, hunting, human activities) and abiotic factors (volcanism, extreme weather) can influence environmental stability.

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Question

What can be considered the backbone of environmental stability and why?

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Answer

Biota, or biodiversity, due to helping with nutrient cycling, chemical fixation, temperature regulation, etc.

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Question

What is homeostasis?

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Answer

Homeostasis is the ability of ecological systems to maintain stable system properties despite perturbations.

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Question

What is ecological succession?

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Answer

Ecological succession is a natural process that happens when one ecosystem type or its biodiversity is replaced by another. 

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Question

How many types of ecological succession can you name?

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Answer

Primary & secondary. Allogenic & autogenic.

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Question

Is the evolution of successional species and succession events linear and complete?

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Answer

Yes, succession always reaches late-stage or climax

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Question

What are some biotic factors that contribute to environmental stability?

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Answer

Respiration, perspiration, shading, nutrient dispersal, carbon sequestration, nitrogen fixation, water filtration, rock weathering by lichens, etc.

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Question

How can biota use sunlight to influence environmental conditions?

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Answer

Biota can use sunlight to grow and reproduce (i.e. many plants and algae use sunlight for photosynthesis and animals use UVB to produce vitamin D)

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Question

Give an example of a relatively stable environment, environmental interaction or environmental characteristic on Earth.

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Answer

Seawater pH (8.3-8.1), Atmospheric pressure (1 bar), primary prey-predator trophic chains (hare and lynx)

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Question

Name a pioneer species.

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Answer

‘Ōhi‘a lehua (Metrosideros polymorpha), Lecidea inops (lichen).

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Question

How would an elk eating salt-containing food help with environmental regulation?

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Answer

The compositional makeup of salt tends to be sodium and chloride. These minerals accumulate and the excess is excreted by the animal such as through urine in environments far away from the original feeding site as the animal traverses land or water. These minerals are then used by other organisms such as plants or can start being found in soils or waterways.

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Question

How is the ozone layer being maintained stable through biotic means?

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Answer

The oxygen molecules (O2) released via plants and algae through respiration allow for ozone (O3) creation high up in the stratosphere through reacting with ultraviolet light (UV).

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Question

Where is the majority of Earth’s phosphorus found?

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Answer

In phosphate rocks.

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How is phosphorus released from phosphate rocks?

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Answer

Through chemical weathering over long periods of time.

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Which spheres are involved in the phosphorus cycle? 

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Answer

The lithosphere, biosphere and hydrosphere. 

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How do plants absorb phosphate ions from the soil?

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Answer

By active transport through their roots. 

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How is phosphorus returned to the lithosphere from the biosphere?

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Answer

Organic matter is broken down by decomposers releasing inorganic phosphate.

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What is phosphorus used for?

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Answer

Phospholipids, nucleic acids, energy, bones, and teeth.

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How is phosphorus transported to soils?

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By rainfall and subsequent runoff.

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Why is phosphorus rarely seen in its elemental form?

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Phosphorus is a very reactive element; it forms compounds easily.

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Which human activities impact the phosphorus cycle?

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Answer

Overuse of phosphorus fertilisers, mining of phosphate rock. 

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What can the overuse of phosphorus fertilisers lead to? 

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Answer

Leaching of the soil and eutrophication. 

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What factors affect phosphorus availability?

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Answer

pH of the soil, adsorption rates. 

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How does phosphorus pass through the ecosystem?

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Herbivorous consumers will eat plants, then carnivorous consumers will eat them. 

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What happens to oceanic phosphorus?

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Answer

Oceanic phosphorus will either be absorbed by marine producers and pass through marine ecosystems, or will settle on the ocean floor and form sediments. 

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How does weathering of sediments occur?

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When they are exposed to air and are subsequently broken down either physically or chemically.

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Why is the phosphorus cycle so slow?

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Because it can take centuries for phosphate rocks to be weathered.

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What are producers?

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Photosynthetic organisms which are able to synthesise glucose using the energy harnessed from sunlight, releasing oxygen as a by-product. 

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What is an organic molecule? 

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Organic compounds are chemical compounds and contain carbon-hydrogen bonds.

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What is aerobic respiration?

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Aerobic respiration is the process by which an organism will break down food molecules and release energy, uptaking oxygen and releasing carbon dioxide in the process. 

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How is carbon dioxide released back into the atmosphere?

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Answer

Aerobic respiration, deforestation and combustion of fossil fuels.

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What are herbivorous consumers?

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Species which exclusively consume plants.

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What are the abiotic spheres of the Earth?

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The non-living spheres, so the atmosphere, geosphere and hydrosphere.

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What do marine species use carbon for other than respiration? 

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Some species will use dissolved carbon to build up their calcareous exoskeletons and shells.

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What are the three types of fossil fuel?

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Coal, petroleum and natural gas.

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Why are fossil fuels needed?

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For energy to power various processes such as transportation, mass production and electricity. 

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How does the burning of fossil fuels affect the carbon cycle? 

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Answer

The combustion of fossil fuels releases huge amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere meaning that producers must take up more carbon dioxide.

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How does deforestation affect the carbon cycle?

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Answer

The combustion of trees releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere while also reducing the Earth’s producer population so less carbon dioxide is taken up.

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What do humans depend on the carbon cycle for? 

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Answer

Humans depend on the carbon cycle for food security and maintaining the earths temperature. 

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How are fossil fuels formed?

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Answer

Dead organic matter, which has not been broken down by decomposers, will be compressed in the ground over millions of years. This can then be used and burned as fossil fuels.

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What causes ocean acidification?

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Answer

Too much carbon dioxide dissolving into the ocean and forming carbonic acid. 

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Why is carbon dioxide called a greenhouse gas? 

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Answer

Because it contributes to the warming of the atmosphere by trapping the sun’s heat (the greenhouse effect).

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What is the atmosphere?

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Answer

The envelope of gases which surround the Earth.

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Why is the carbon cycle important?

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Answer

Maintains an oxygenated atmosphere and warms the planet via the greenhouse effect.

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How does burning fossil fuels affect the carbon cycle?

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Releases massive amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, much of which is taken up by the ocean causing ocean acidification.

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How does deforestation affect the carbon cycle?

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Reduces the ability of the planet to take up atmospheric carbon dioxide.

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How can we make the carbon cycle more sustainable?

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Answer

Use alternative fuel sources which do not release carbon dioxide and plant more trees.

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Question

Which type of bacteria releases gaseous nitrogen back into the atmosphere.

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Answer

Denitrifying bacteria.

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Why is the nitrogen cycle important?

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Answer

Nitrogen availability is essential for plants and animals to build up vital nitrogen-containing molecules (e.g. DNA, ATP)

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How does the overuse of fertilisers effect the nitrogen cycle?

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Answer

Runoff of nitrogen-rich soils leads to huge amounts of nitrogen circulating in marine ecosystems.

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