“Biodiversity underpins the functioning of the ecosystems on which we depend for food and fresh water, health and recreation, and protection from natural disasters. Its loss also affects us culturally and spiritually. This may be more difficult to quantify, but is nonetheless integral to our well-being”– Ban Ki-moon, Secretary General of the United Nations
Put simply, Biodiversity is the variety of life on Earth. It is essential for sustaining the natural living systems or ecosystems that provide us with food, clean water, fuel, health, wealth, and other services we take for granted in our everyday life.
Biodiversity is shorthand for ‘biological diversity’ and is used to describe the diversity of life on Earth. There are typically three broad elements to biodiversity: diversity of species, diversity of habitats and the genetic diversity within species. It includes humans. Incredibly, over 1 million species have been identified by scientists but this is only a fraction of what exists. Perhaps the real number is nearly 9 million. Even in Ireland, which is small and relatively well studied, new species are identified regularly.
All life depends upon biodiversity. In other words, every species, including humans, depends upon its connection with other plants, animals and habitats. The term ‘ecosystem’ describes how different species interact within a given area. Healthy ecosystems provide habitat for species and provide everything it needs for survival, such as food, water, shelter and the opportunity to breed and interact with others of its kind, and so, ensure the viability of the next generation.
Although it doesn’t always feel like it, humans also depend entirely on biodiversity. The air that we breath, the water we drink and use in our homes and business, all of the food on our plate are products of biodiversity. We are also drawn to nature for recreation and amenity and for inspiration.
The way humans use the land and sea has dramatically reduced the area of natural ecosystems across the world. This has happened through the conversion of natural habitats, e.g. forests, to farmland, the drainage of wetlands, over exploitation through hunting and fishing, the introduction of non-native alien species and the pollution of waterways. While this has been on-going for a very long time, experts warn that the destruction of biodiversity is occurring at a rate unprecedented in human history. The root cause of this destruction is our consumption patterns, essentially everything from the food we eat, the metals and minerals in the stuff we buy and the fossil fuels that go into manufacturing and transporting them.
Human pressure is now so great that many scientists believe we are in a period of ‘mass extinction’ not seen since the age of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. This is a serious problem for people because it threatens supplies of food and water.
Very much so. Ireland’s natural ecosystem on land is native oak forest, which once covered 80% of the island. This has been reduced to perhaps only 1% today. The sea around us was once teeming with fish but has been chronically overfished and there are virtually no areas where marine life is protected. Many of our rivers and lakes have been polluted or have been artificially modified to drain adjacent land. Most of our bog land, including on our hills has been damaged through drainage, afforestation with non-native conifers, grazing animals and burning. Bees and other insects are struggling because there are so few flowers in the landscape, particularly on farmland. In fact, over 120 species of plants and animals have already gone extinct in Ireland while on average a third of all species groups – from birds to sharks – are threatened with extinction or ‘near threatened’. There are no longer natural ecosystems on land or at sea in Ireland due to human pressure.
Yes. The increase in greenhouse gases (GHGs) in the atmosphere has primarily arisen from the burning of fossil fuels, but changes to land use have also contributed. For example, a significant source of GHGs in Ireland are from damaged peatlands. Natural forests store a lot of carbon but plantations of conifers on drained peat are emitting GHGs. Climate change is also a significant threat to biodiversity.
Also, the lack of healthy ecosystems has left us vulnerable to the effects of global heating. In other words, our land is more prone to droughts, fires, floods and coastal erosion. On the other hand, restoring nature, including natural ecosystems, could take a lot of carbon out of the atmosphere and store it for a long time, sometimes indefinitely.
So biodiversity destruction contributes to global heating but restoring nature can be an important part of the solution.
Dealing with the climate and biodiversity crisis can be overwhelming but there are lots of things you can do to get involved:
- Learn more by attending an event that interests you during National Biodiversity Week. There are lots of actions you can take as an individual or within your community to help local and national biodiversity.
- Learn more using some of the resources outlined on this website or highlighted during National Biodiversity Week.
- Find your local community group or NGO that is already dealing with topics of biodiversity.
- Talk to people around you about how they feel about what is happening.
- Contact your local politicians and ask them what they’re doing it.
Featured image credit: Peek-a-boo Pipefish, by Vanessa Keane