The biosphere is the part of the Earth that includes all living things. It is one step above ecosystems and contains organisms that live in communities of species or populations, which interact with each other.
Ecosystems are all of these communities and living organisms plus all of the nonliving components of those environments. When you study Earth science or other environmental sciences, it is important to remember that the biosphere contains all the life on Earth.
Geologist Eduard Suess was the first person to use the term biosphere. He created the term by adding the word bio (life) to sphere (the shape of the Earth) to refer to the areas on Earth with life forms. Suess needed the new word in order to refer to life as a whole instead of zoning in on particular species or organisms on the Earth's surface.
The current biosphere meaning references all of life on Earth in the lithosphere (the rocky crust of the Earth), the atmosphere (air) and the hydrosphere (water). It includes all the ecosystems, biomes and organisms on the planet. The biosphere is a comparatively thin layer or zone of life that includes everything from bacteria to humans.
Network of Life on Earth: Biosphere Resources
There are different components and resources in the biosphere. All life depends on biotic and abiotic resources in their ecosystems, which include sunlight, food, water, shelter and soil.
B__iotic factors are living, while abiotic factors are nonliving. Animals and plants are examples of biotic factors. Rocks and soil are abiotic factors.
All ecosystems connect to each other by being in the biosphere. This creates a complex network of organisms and nonliving resources that requires a delicate balance. In order for the biosphere to work, many things had to come together to allow for life on Earth.
From the right distance from the sun to the tilt of the Earth, different factors contributed to the emergence of life. The biosphere has evolved over time as the planet's composition and features have changed.
What Affects the Biosphere?
Both living and nonliving things affect the biosphere. From the African coast to the Arctic, the biosphere is constantly changing. Large factors such as the Earth's tilt affect the biosphere in a great way because it contributes to the seasonal climate change humans have learned to expect. Other nonliving factors like weather patterns, plate tectonics, erosion and natural disasters also influence the biosphere.
Natural disasters can have a lasting impact on the biosphere. For example, volcanic eruptions can change life on land by spewing gases, lava, rocks and ash that destroy ecosystems. Volcanic eruptions on the ocean floor can heat up the surrounding water.
Volcanoes can act as both a destructive force and a creative one. Over time, volcanoes can also create new landforms and dramatically change the appearance of the planet.
By studying global patterns, scientists can learn more about what affects the biosphere. To preserve life on Earth, the United Nations established a program that focused on sustainable development and created 563 biosphere reserves in 110 countries.
Biogeochemical cycles are an important part of the biosphere. A biogeochemical cycle is the pathway or flow of elements among living things and the environment. Since matter is conserved in the universe, it is recycled throughout the biosphere.
For instance, animals eat plants, and the plants' nutrients or matter are incorporated into the herbivores and scat that goes back into the soil. Those herbivores die and decompose, putting their matter back into the environment.
Many cycles connect the biosphere. Some examples include:
- Rock cycle: This is how rocks change over time through weathering, erosion, transportation, compaction and other factors.
Water cycle: This describes how water moves through ecosystems by evaporation, condensation, precipitation, runoff and transpiration.
Nutrient cycles: These pathways move nitrogen, carbon and other nutrients through ecosystems.
Photosynthesis is the cycle that plants use to make energy. By turning light and carbon dioxide into usable energy, plants create the foundation for almost all living things. Some bacteria, protists and plants use solar energy and carbon dioxide to make oxygen and sugar, which is crucial for other nutrient cycles and food webs.
The biosphere is particularly important for the carbon cycle: Living things take in carbon dioxide and change it into oxygen, so the organisms become carbon reservoirs like fossil fuels and trees.
The biosphere extends up to 12,500 meters from the surface of the Earth. It includes the tallest mountains in the air all the way down to the deepest trenches in the ocean. This is a small slice of all of the Earth, but it contains millions of organisms.
It is estimated that there are 8.7 million different species in the biosphere. About 6.5 million species live on land, while 2.2 million live in the water.
Water, or the hydrosphere, is the largest part of the biosphere and covers 71 percent of the planet's surface. The oceans contain 96.5 percent of the water, and only 1 percent is actually accessible as fresh water for living organisms that need it.
Biomes in the Biosphere
A biome is an ecological community that includes living things in a specific environment. It is a naturally occurring group of plants and animals that live in a habitat. The biosphere contains all the biomes on the planet. Sometimes it is difficult to distinguish between different biomes, and a biome can contain more than one ecosystem.
There are six major biomes: freshwater, marine, desert, forest, grassland and tundra. However, there are other ways to classify biomes, and different systems exist. A broader classification system divides biomes into terrestrial and aquatic groups.
The land, climate and other features of a geographic area affect the type of plants and animals that can survive in it. Over time, biomes can change and evolve.
Human activities, natural disasters and other factors can influence biomes. For example, agricultural activities can change the vegetation in an area and drive out or attract different species. Once the flora and fauna change in a specific ecosystem, this can affect the entire biome. Because humans have a large impact on biodiversity, studying the entire biosphere is crucial for protecting species and the environment.
Biosphere Examples: Biosphere 2
Currently, the only known biosphere in the universe is Earth's biosphere, and it is considered Biosphere 1. However, humans have created artificial biospheres, including Biosphere 2. Biosphere 2 was a laboratory built in Oracle, Arizona, to do controlled studies. The self-contained facility looked like a large greenhouse. Between 1991 and 1994, groups of people tried to live and work in the facility.
In 1991, Biosphere 2 had five different biomes spread across three acres. The scientists who lived in the laboratory wanted to make it sustainable and avoided interactions with the outside world. The original goal was to stay in the artificial biosphere for 100 years. However, the missions lasted for only four years. The teams faced many challenges, including cockroaches and ants, constant hunger, irrational antagonism, internal power struggles and dangerously low oxygen levels.
Although people do not live in it full-time, Biosphere 2 is still an important research facility. You can even take a tour of it and see how scientists used the laboratory to learn more about biomes and ecosystems.
- Encyclopaedia Britannica: Biosphere
- National Geographic: Biosphere
- Carleton College: Climate and the Biosphere: Unit Overview
- University of Arizona: Biosphere 2
- NASA Earth Observatory: World of Change: Global Biosphere
- UNESCO: UNESCO’s Man and the Biosphere Programme: 40 Years of Sustainable Development
- Dartmouth Alumni Magazine: Biosphere 2: What Really Happened?
About the Author
Lana Bandoim is a freelance writer and editor. She has a Bachelor of Science degree in biology and chemistry from Butler University. Her work has appeared on Forbes, Yahoo! News, Business Insider, Lifescript, Healthline and many other publications. She has been a judge for the Scholastic Writing Awards from the Alliance for Young Artists & Writers. She has also been nominated for a Best Shortform Science Writing award by the Best Shortform Science Writing Project.