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Earths life-support systems / Timing: 6:42

Earths life-support systems

Hi, Im Dorothea Pio and Im going to be talking to you about how ecosystems support our lives here on
Earth. So what is an ecosystem? An ecosystem is a dynamic complex of living things including animals,
plants and micro-organisms and their non-living environment including air, water and soils. And all of
these things together function as one interactive unit1. Human beings are also part of ecosystems and
like all other living things, affect ecosystems and their processes but are also highly dependent on them
for survival.
Ecosystems can be relatively undisturbed like primary forests or highly modified and managed like
agricultural landscapes and plantation forests. Ecosystems can vary in size too they can be tiny or vast,
but whats important is that they function as one unit. Examples of ecosystems include wetlands,
grasslands, temperate forests, tropical forests and agricultural landscapes.
So why are ecosystems just so crucial for us? Well, essentially, because they provide us with all the
goods and services that we need to survive on Earth. For example, forests and woodlands provide us
with foods, timber, natural medicine and they regulate our climate.
Coastal ecosystems also provide us with food sources and natural defense against extreme weather
events such as floods and tsunamis. Freshwater ecosystems like rivers and lakes provide us with water
for drinking and bathing. All of these attributes which make life on Earth both possible and worth living
are called ecosystem services.
What we should remember when were talking about ecosystem services, were talking about a humancentred or human-focused concept. While ecosystems are of course important in their own right, when
were talking about ecosystem services, were thinking about their role in supporting human well-being.
We usually talk about four main groups of ecosystem services. In the first group, provisioning services,
are all of those products that we harvest more or less directly from nature. There is a vast range of food
products we get from plants, animals and microbes including wild and cultivated products such as fish,
meat, corn, wheat, nuts, berries and honey. Provisioning services also includes natural medicine, genetic
resources and biochemicals which are all so important for our pharmaceutical industry and for animal
and plant breeding.
The second group is regulating services. These are all of those services that contribute to human wellbeing by regulating the processes that underpin ecosystems. Hazard regulation is an example of
regulating services. Extreme floods may be reduced by ecosystems. Mangroves, for example, can be
really effective buffers against sea level changes that may be brought on by tsunamis or floods2.
Pollination is another regulating service. Approximately, 80% of all flowering plants are pollinated by
animals and mostly insects but also birds and mammals.
Climate regulation, both global and local, is another really important regulating service that ecosystems
provide. About 289 gigatonnes of carbon are absorbed by forests every year. This has a huge impact on
temperature and precipitation worldwide but also at a local level3.
The third group, supporting services, provides the basic infrastructure to life. So what exactly does that
mean? Well, for example, the creation or production of new living material is called primary production

Earths life-support systems / Timing: 6:42

and is one of these supporting services. Algae, for example, will take nutrients and sunlight and through
a process called photosynthesis, produce oxygen which is fundamental to the survival of most organisms
living on the Earth. Another example of supporting services is nutrient recycling. The breaking down of
organic matter in our soils is what contributes to soil fertility and allows us to grow so many crops.
The fourth group, or cultural services, are those non-material benefits which we receive from nature.
These include recreation and tourism, research and education and aesthetics. Pleasure may be
associated with the beauty of a landscape, a concept that varies greatly between cultures but is present
in almost every culture and is very highly valued. Nature can provide positive benefits for our health,
both mental and physical. In many cultures, specific sites, landscape features and species become really
important cultural references and are very highly valued.
So by now, you should have a good understanding of the varied and many ways that ecosystems
contribute to human well-being. So are ecosystems changing or stable? To a certain extent, ecosystems
change all the time but over the past 50-100 years, ecosystems have really changed a lot and this is
mainly due to human activities4.
The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment demonstrated the importance of ecosystem values and services
to human well-being and also showed that many of these ecosystem services are being degraded or
lost5. Ongoing and widespread decline in biodiversity and ecosystems has led to significant changes in
ecosystem services, raising concerns about their capability to continue to sustain human well-being and
economic development in the long term.
Next, put what youve learned into practice with a quick learning check and in the next video, you will
hear more about how we are in the midst of the sixth mass extinction.

Willis AJ (1997) The Ecosystem: an evolving concept viewed historically. Functional Ecology 11: 267-271

Danielson F et al. (2005) The Asian Tsunami: A Protective Role for Coastal Vegetation, Science 28: 310 (5748):

FAO (FOOD AND AGRICULTURE ORGANIZATION OF THE UN) (2010) Global Forest Resources Assessment 2010.
FAO, Rome, Italy.

Nelson GCE et al. (2006) Anthropogenic drivers of ecosystem change: an overview. Ecology and Society 11(2): 29.

Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (2005) Ecosystems and human well-being. Volumes 1 & 2. Island Press,
Washington, D.C., USA.