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Changes to Ecosystems

Changes to Ecosystems

Have you ever gone on an extended holiday, only to come back and find your neighbourhood is not quite as you left it? It may have been something as small as some trimmed bushes, or perhaps some old neighbours moved out and some new neighbours moved in. In any case, something changed.

We might think of ecosystems as something constant – the Serengeti will always have lions, for example – but in reality, ecosystems are subject to change, just like everything else on this planet. Let's discuss the different changes to ecosystems, and the natural and human causes behind those changes.

Global changes in ecosystems

Ecosystems are communities of living organisms interacting with each other and their physical environment. Those interactions ensure that ecosystems are never static. Different animals and plants constantly compete against each other for access to resources like food and space.

This puts ecosystems in a perpetual state of fluctuation, ultimately leading to evolution by natural selection – that is, the process by which populations of living organisms change over time in order to better adapt to their environment. In other words, ecosystems globally are constantly changing!

Factors affecting ecosystems

Any ecosystem has two distinct factors or components. Abiotic components are non-living, including things like rocks, weather patterns, or bodies of water. Biotic components are living, including trees, mushrooms, and leopards. Living components must adapt to each other and the abiotic components in their environment; this is the fuel for change. Failure to do so spells extinction, meaning the species no longer exists.

But if ecosystems are already constantly changing, what do we mean by the term 'changes to ecosystems'? Well, we are mainly referring to events or processes that interrupt the way an ecosystem is already functioning. These are changes from without, not from within. In some cases, an outside event or activity may entirely destroy an ecosystem.

We can divide changes to ecosystems into two broad categories: natural causes and human causes. Together with evolution by natural selection, natural disasters and human-caused environmental degradation are the main ways any given ecosystem will experience change.

Natural causes of changes in ecosystems

If you've ever seen a fallen tree lying in the road the morning after a thunderstorm, you probably already have some idea of how natural events can cause changes in ecosystems.

But we're going a bit beyond small thunderstorms. A natural disaster is a weather-related event that causes widespread damage to an area. Natural disasters are not caused by humans (though, in some instances, human activity can make them more severe). Other natural causes like disease are not technically natural disasters but can cause similar levels of devastation.

Natural causes of changes in ecosystems include, but are not limited to:

  • Wildfire/forest fire

  • Flooding

  • Drought

  • Earthquake

  • Volcanic eruption

  • Tornado

  • Tsunami

  • Cyclone

  • Disease

Some of these natural events may occur in conjunction with one another.

Natural disasters can fundamentally change an ecosystem. Entire forests can be burned down by a wildfire or uprooted by an earthquake, leading to deforestation. An area can be completely flooded, drowning all of the plants. A disease like rabies can spread through an area, killing large numbers of animals.

Many natural disasters only cause temporary changes to ecosystems. Once the event has passed, the area slowly recovers: trees grow back, animals return, and the original ecosystem is largely restored.

The 1980 eruption of Mt. St. Helens in the United States effectively wiped out the ecosystem surrounding the volcano. By 2022, many trees in the area had regrown, allowing local species of animals to return.

However, natural causes of changes to ecosystems can be permanent. This usually has to do with long-term changes to climate or physical geography. For example, if an area faces drought for too long, it may become more desert-like. Or, if an area remains permanently flooded after a hurricane or tsunami, it may become an aquatic ecosystem. In both cases, the original wildlife will likely never return, and the ecosystem will be forever altered.

Human causes of changes in ecosystems

Just as ecosystems change all the time, so does our Earth's climate. As the climate changes, it, in turn, causes changes in ecosystems. When the Earth becomes cooler, polar and tundra ecosystems expand, whereas when the Earth becomes warmer, tropical and desert ecosystems expand.

Frequently Asked Questions about Changes to Ecosystems

Factors that affect ecosystems are either abiotic (non-living) or biotic (living) in nature, and include weather patterns, physical geography, and competition between species.

Examples of natural ecosystem changes include wildfires, flooding, earthquakes, and diseases. 

The three main reasons that ecosystems change are evolution by natural selection; natural disasters; and human-caused environmental degradation. 

Humans can, first and foremost, change ecosystems but changing the way land is being used. However, humans can also influence ecosystems by introducing invasive species, polluting, or building within an ecosystem. 

Yes, absolutely! The constant competition within an ecosystem means things are always changing, even when natural disasters and human activity play no role. 

Natural disasters can cause immense immediate damage to an ecosystem, as can human activity like infrastructure development. Pollution and climate change can cause long-term damage to an ecosystem. 

Final Changes to Ecosystems Quiz

Question

What are the two main cold environments?

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Answer

Polar and tundra.

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Question

True or False? In tundra environments, the permafrost can melt during the summer months. 

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Answer

True.

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What is a wilderness environment?

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Answer

A natural place where there is very little human activity, making it undisturbed. 

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Question

Name the two main challenges in managing cold environments.

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Answer

Economic development and conservation.

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List all the risks associated with managing cold environments. 

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Answer

Climate change, issues surrounding conservation, over-development, increasing tourism, and cultural erosion. 

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What is cultural erosion?

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Answer

When a community takes on new rules or values and loses their original rules and values. 

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True or False? Increasing tourism is not a threat to cold environments.

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Answer

False. 

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Question

Which factors below are used to manage cold environments?

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Answer

International agreements.

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True or False? NGOs only campagin for ideas and do not have direct power in actually implementing laws and rules.

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Answer

True.

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What is the Arctic Council an example of?

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Answer

An international agreement.

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True or False? Hunting, trapping, industrial fishing and whaling are all conservation risks to cold environments.

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Answer

True.

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Question

What are the four main types of cold environments? 

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Answer

Alpine, glacial, periglacial, and polar.

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What is the difference between alpine and polar environments? 

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Answer

Alpine environments are created by the high elevation leading to a decrease in average temperatures, whereas polar environments are created by their high latitude with low temperatures. 

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Question

What type of cold environment takes up the smallest surface area on the Earth?

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Answer

Glacial.

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Question

What are the two categories of polar environments and how do they differ?

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Answer

Tundra has at least one month in the year where temperatures go above freezing, whereas ice caps have no point in the year where temperatures exceed zero degrees Celsius.

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Question

How do cold environments regulate the Earth’s climate?

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Answer

Through reflecting solar energy back into space and storing carbon in the form of permafrost in periglacial environments. 

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Where are cold environments located on earth?

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Answer

Cold environments are primarily located within the polar regions but can be found south of the Arctic circle in Russia and North America. In addition, cold environments can be found in areas of high elevation on mountains.

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Question

How much of the Earth’s surface is thought to be covered by periglacial environments?

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Answer

10%.

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Question

Are direct temperature increases the only threat to cold environments from climate change? Explain.

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Answer

No, there is also the impact of more severe seasonal and annual climatic changes which will impact how periglacial systems function.

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How do glacial and periglacial environments differ?

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Answer

Glacial environments are shaped by glacial processes (the movement of ice) whereas periglacial environments are shaped by freeze-thaw processes (the repeated formation and melting of ice).

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Question

What is a tree line?

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Answer

The tree line is a sudden change in vegetation seen at the boundary of polar and alpine environments, where it gets too cold for trees to grow. Across the tree line, plant communities change from being dominated by trees and other woody plants to grasses, mosses, and other plants specialized for the cold.

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Question

Deforestation is the clearing of trees from _________.

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Answer

Forestland.

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Which of the following is NOT a cause of deforestation? 

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Answer

Offshore fracking. 

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Question

True or False: Some wildfires are caused by human activities.

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Answer

True. Wildfires can be started by unattended campfires; discarded cigarettes; or even intentional arson.

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Question

Farmer Mateo needs space to plant his crops, or he will not be able to feed his family next year. Farmer Mateo burns down a portion of the local forest. Which of the following most accurately describes the reason for this deforestation?

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Answer

Expansion of agriculture.

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Question

True or False: Forest fires are always a bad thing!

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Answer

False. Some trees, like the eucalyptus tree, depend on forest fires to drop their seeds. However, some wildfires are so deadly that all potential benefits are lost.

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Question

What is runoff?

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Answer

Runoff occurs when water that has pooled at the surface of the ground floods over into other areas. 

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True or False: When tree roots are removed from soil, the soil becomes healthier. 

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Answer

False. Tree roots bind soil together. When these roots are removed, the soil can become eroded. 

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Q: Which of the following products come from trees? Select ALL that apply.

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Answer

Paper.

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Q: True or False: As the number of trees decreases, wildfires will become less severe. 

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Answer

False! A decrease in trees means more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere–which means the world will continue to get hotter and drier, which are the perfect conditions for wildfires. Wildfires may become more common and more severe as deforestation continues.

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Question

Which countries can the Amazon rainforest be found in?

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Answer

Brazil, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela, Guyana, Suriname, and French Guiana.

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What factors are causing deforestation of the Amazon rainforest?

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Answer

Subsistence and commercial farming, logging, road building, mineral extraction, energy development, and settlement and population growth.

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What is subsistence farming?

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Answer

When the farmer uses their crops and livestock for their needs.

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Fill in the blanks. ____ and ___ is a method of shifting cultivation.

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Answer

Slash, burn.

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Question

Why might roads be built through the Amazon rainforest?

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Answer

To increase accessibility and connections to the rainforest.

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Where is the majority of the Amazon rainforest located?

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Answer

Brazil.

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Question

True or False? Gold is an abundant mineral that is found in the Amazon rainforest, therefore deforestation of the Amazon rainforest occurs because of gold mining.

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Answer

True. 

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Question

True or False? Dams are built in the Amazon rainforest to generate energy through hydroelectric power.

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Answer

True. 

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Question

How can population growth lead to the deforestation of the Amazon rainforest?

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Answer

To create more spaces for houses and settlements.

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Question

Name the global impacts of deforestation of the Amazon rainforests. 

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Answer

Global warming and loss of biodiversity.

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Question

List the local impacts of deforestation of the Amazon rainforest.

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Answer

Soil erosion and fertility, river pollution, the decline of Indigenous tribes, and conflicts.

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Question

True or false? Svalbard is a Norwegian archipelago?

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Answer

True.

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Question

What is the range of Svalbard's winter temperature?

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Answer

-13 to -20 degrees Celsius.

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Question

What are the main opportunities in development for Svalbard?

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Answer

Fishing, tourism, energy, and mineral extraction.

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How does tourism help with Svalbard's development? 

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Answer

It provides jobs for locals and brings money in.

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Question

Why does the minimal mineral extraction occur in Svalbard?

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Answer

Extreme temperature.

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Question

True or false? The Barents Sea, that can be found off the coast of Svalbard, has the second most extensive cod stock in the world.

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Answer

False. 

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Question

What are the main challenges to development that Svalbard face?

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Answer

Extreme temperature, inaccessibility, and construction and infrastructure.

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Question

Why are houses at risk of sinking in Svalbard?

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Answer

Thawing permafrost.

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Question

Fill in the blanks: ____ _____ mean that it is hard to grow food in Svalbard.

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Answer

Extreme temperatures.

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