In preparation for the Bay Game this Thursday, I have been researching a lot about how ecosystems depend on a perfect balance of parts. Fundamentally, every ecosystem lacks a definitive center–it is a patchwork of elements, a field in which every single detail has vital importance. It is easy to lump all the small factors into negligible side glances, but we need not forget that a well-oiled machine is a compounding of little individual pieces. A crescendo holds sound waves from an orchestra of instruments.
A striking example of this can be seen in our nation’s own Yellowstone, where the links between animal and plant species are crucial to a harmonious balance. The loss of wolves in Yellowstone set the ecosystem into a downward spiral, tipping further and further into imbalanced chaos. With the loss of wolves came a rise in the elk population, which was no longer kept in check. The elks invaded the banks of streams, rendering the willows bald in the aftermath of their appetites. The willows that once slowed the stream flow disappeared, and the streams became more swift. Faster moving waters make it difficult for beavers to survive and build dams, so they disappear with the willows.
Grossman quotes Alan Tessier, “this research illustrates the value of long-term ecological experiments to understanding how species interactions cascade through food webs to determine ecosystem resilience.”
Scientists originally thought that simply replacing the wolf population in Yellowstone was enough to restore the balance, by decreasing elk population and growing more willows. However, the fast moving streams are also a poor environment for willows to grow in–and the beavers that used to dam up the streams and slow the current are long-gone. With the loss of beaver ponds in Yellowstone’s stream network, there has been a depletion of the moisture-rich sediment deposits that the willows need to take root.
Simply by removing one predator from Yellowstone’s ecological system caused a cascade of imbalances that we are still today working to restore. Reintroducing wolves certainly helped to restabilize the ecosystem, but there is still a long way to go:
On the global scale, more and more attention is being paid to the decline of the bee population worldwide. This will affect worldwide trade of food products, whose availability in farming is dependent upon pollination.
This sort of problem is already being seen to happen in California, whose almond orchards are struggling to bear fruit. The European Commission intends to impose a two-year ban on neonicotinoids, which are pesticides that are suspected to cause “colony collapse disorder” (which is the inexplicable decline in the population of bees).
Unnatural products that humans use on a large scale to control their surrounding environments–be it shotguns, pesticides, or fertilizers–have had significant impact on our ecosystems worldwide. I think that humans are forgetting that they, too, are a PART of the world that they so adamantly wish to control.
Last week I watched Tom Shadyac’s documentary I AM, in which he attempts to answer the questions: “what’s wrong with the world, and what can we do about it?”. Throughout the film’s explorations and interviews, the audience comes to realize that cooperation and not competition may be nature’s most fundamental operating principle. Even Charles Darwin is cited in the Descent of Man as using the word “love” 95 times and the phrase “survival of the fittest” only twice.
The most cutting-edge research in the field of science was discussed, and the studies are utterly mind-boggling. Every human brain subconsciously registers the heartbeat of everyone around them; we are connected to each other without even knowing it. Shadyac himself participated in an experiment where his emotional responses had an effect on the energy of a bowl of yogurt. We are all inherently connected to the world at large, as shown by spooky experiments about the “ordering of our universe”. Throughout the globe there are 65 random number generators whose only purpose is to do the digital numerical equivalent of flip coins over and over. In the wake of large-scale catastrophes–the most influential of which was 9/11– all of the random number generators around the world simultaneously begin to behave in a non-random manner. It seems that the elements of the living biological world not only depend on physical cooperation, but the energies and emotions rely on each other to remain healthy as well.
I’m interested to see how human and natural components feed in to the Bay Game, especially in terms of the bay’s existing “dead zones” that I discussed in a previous post.
These dead zones are caused after a chain of events sparked by large-scale chicken farms. Chicken waste leads to an abundance of nitrogen and phosphorous in the ground, which is picked up by runoff and eventually enters into the bay. This in turn over-fertilizes the photosynthetic algae in the bay, causing algae blooms that suck up all of the available oxygen in the water. Without sunlight penetration, underwater plant life is squandered and fish are suffocated. If farmers in the bay area paid more attention to their large-scale impact in the cascading ecosystemic chain of events, perhaps imbalances such as this could be avoided.
I AM. Documentary by Tom Shadyac, 2011
Grossman, Elizabeth. “Declining Bee Populations pose a threat to Global Agriculture” http://e360.yale.edu/feature/declining_bee_populations_pose_a_threat_to_global_agriculture/2645/
Dybas, Cheryl, NSF. “Yellowstone Ecosystem Needs Wolves and Willows, Elk and …Beavers?”