What Is Biodiversity Loss and Why Is It a Problem?

Anything in a given area from the smallest organism to the largest are part of the biodiversity of a habitat.

There is so much life on this planet that it's estimated 86 percent of species are still undiscovered. Thanks to humans, though, we may never get the chance to find them all. Biodiversity loss is becoming a bigger problem than we ever thought it could be. It's estimated that half of all the species on the planet could go extinct by 2050 — only 32 years from now. What is biodiversity loss, and why is it such a big problem?

What Is Biodiversity Loss?

Biodiversity is defined as the totality of genes, species and ecosystems in a defined area. Everything from the smallest single-celled organism to the largest apex predator makes up the biodiversity of a given area.

Biodiversity loss, on the other hand, is the death of those ecosystems. Either the entire ecosystem is destroyed because of human intervention — including deforestation, urban development and farming — or enough key species in an ecosystem die that the ecosystem collapses on its own.

We're already experiencing biodiversity loss. It's estimated that in the last four decades, we've lost more than 50 percent of the planet's biodiversity. If the fact that we might lose more than 50 percent of the planet's plants and animals in just 32 years doesn't scare you a little bit, you might not be paying attention.

What Causes Biodiversity Loss?

What causes these natural ecosystems to collapse?

Sometimes the collapse of an ecosystem is the result of natural causes. Forest fires, floods and volcanic eruptions all have the potential to destroy an ecosystem in a given area. However, these natural types of biodiversity loss are normal — and the planet has a plan in place to restore them once the damage has passed. Some seeds, like those from a number of pine trees, won't even germinate unless their parent tree has burned in a wildfire.

Those aren't the kinds of biodiversity loss we should be concerned about.

Human intervention has caused the majority of biodiversity loss in the last few decades. Common causes include:

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Deforestation: When we cut down a forest to use its lumber, or claim the land for agricultural purposes, we are destroying unique ecosystems that can't exist anywhere else.

Invasive Species: Species introduced in an area where they have no natural predators can decimate an ecosystem. Good examples of this are the pythons in the Florida Everglades and lionfish in the Gulf of Mexico. Most of these invasive species are linked directly to human intervention. 

Pollution: Garbage dumped into the water supply, chemical runoff from industrial applications, and air pollution from cars and factories all have a negative effect.

Climate Change: Changes in the climate can happen naturally over millions of years — just look at the end of the last ice age. This time, though, climate change has been the result of human intervention. It's happening too quickly, and species can't adapt quickly enough, so they're dying out. 

Overfishing: It's difficult to put a number on overfishing because most of the ocean is still unexplored, but it's estimated that anywhere from 60 to 90 percent of the ocean has been overfished or is on the verge of collapse.

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Overpopulation: There are currently 7.4 billion people on the planet. Experts estimate that the planet is only capable of supporting roughly 10 billion souls, a number we're expected to reach and exceed in the next 100 years.

There are so many of us on the planet now that it's almost impossible not to have an impact on the world around us. What sort of impact will this loss of biodiversity have on us?

The Human Impact of Biodiversity Loss

As much as we like to try to keep ourselves apart from it, by building roads and houses to protect us from the elements, humans are intrinsically linked to the world around us. Biodiversity loss will affect us, too.

Maria Neira, director of WHO's Department for the Protection of the Human Environment, summed it up better than we ever could. "Human health is strongly linked to the health of the ecosystems, which meet many of our most critical needs."

We harvest plants from around the world for both modern and alternative medicine. Many of these medicines save lives, and we could lose half of these plants by 2050.

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We harvest 200 billion pounds of food from the oceans every single year. Meat from wild animals also helps to sustain people around the world while bolstering their local economy.

Natural wonders like the Great Barrier Reef don't only contribute food to the local populations — they also help maintain Australia’s economy by bringing in tourists and visitors from around the world.

We're not just threatening the health of the planet's ecosystems — we're threatening our own survival. Climate change alone is threatening bees and other migratory pollinators, and if we lose the bees, we lose the majority of our food supply. Bees alone pollinate 70 of the 100 plants that feed more than 90 percent of the world.

If those plants die, so will the animals that feed on them, and on and on up the food chain, until multiple ecosystems around the world collapse. Between that and the constantly growing human population, we can't afford to keep turning a blind eye to biodiversity loss. What can we do to start reversing this damage that we've done to the planet?

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How to Reverse Biodiversity Loss

Trying to save the whole planet is a lofty goal, but it's not something you can do alone. It will take everyone making small changes in the way they live to create large, cumulative changes.

What can you do, in your own individual part of the world, to help protect biodiversity?

Recycle, Recycle, Recycle: The old adage to reduce, reuse and recycle is great, but at this point, we're just going to focus on the last part — Purchase products that are made with recycled materials. Plastic, paper, wood and metal can all be recycled, so start there to make a difference. On the other side of the coin, recycle as much as you can. Campaign for recycling programs in your area. Make recycling cool again.

Buy Sustainable: We all love a well-cooked salmon filet or swordfish steak, but before you start stocking up on seafood, make sure you're buying fish that has been sustainably harvested. Avoid fish that are endangered like Bluefin tuna, and only purchase seafood that is labeled with the Marine Stewardship Council logo.

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Drive Green: Everyone talks about reducing their carbon footprint, and the easiest way you can do this is to give up your gas guzzler in favor of a hybrid or electric car. These low- to no-emission vehicles have much less of an impact on the environment. If buying a new car isn't an option, try carpooling, public transportation, riding a bike or walking where you can.

Protect Local Habitats and Make Wildlife Welcome: We might not be able to save the world, but we can help improve our local areas. Take the time to clean up animal habitats, like beaches, forests and other undeveloped areas. Make your area welcoming for wildlife. Bird houses, bat houses and other housing can be great, as can planting local flora and turning your backyard into your own personal wildlife sanctuary.

Go Package-Free: Plastic packaging is one of the biggest wastes we experience on a daily basis. If you have one in your area, shop at a packing-free grocery store. These allow you to bring your own bags, jars and other reusable packaging to buy dry ingredients in bulk.

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Compost: The average American generates roughly 4.4 pounds of garbage a day, much of it organic. Instead of tossing your vegetable peelings or coffee grounds, try setting up a compost pile for your organic waste. Not only does it keep your trash out of landfills, but it also makes killer natural fertilizer for flowers and plants — no chemicals needed.

Volunteer: There are probably plenty of organizations in your area that are working toward a greener tomorrow. You just have to look for them. Volunteer your time and help improve the area where you live. 

Stand Up: Big companies are starting to get the picture, but there are still plenty that will exploit natural resources if given a chance. If you've got a big development company moving into your area that wants to cut down forests or drain local wetlands, it's up you to stand up and rally others to stand up to prevent this.

Donate: If donating your time isn't enough, consider donating some money to nonprofit organizations that are fighting to protect biodiversity around the world. There are many organizations that protect land, sea, and air in favor of a better tomorrow.

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This might seem like a huge list of changes to make in your life, but it's a small sampling of the things we can do, on an individual level, to help protect biodiversity.

When it comes down to it, we're a part of this planet and what we do impacts not only the world around us but our future, as well. We each need to start doing our part to help reverse the damage we've done to global biodiversity by starting in our own backyards. We're the ones that made the mess, and we're the only ones that can clean it up. A little bit can go a long way if everyone pitches in.

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Megan Ray Nichols is a blogger and freelance science writer. She enjoys participating in conversations about engineering, technology and space exploration. Megan is also a regular contributor to Datafloq, Cerasis, and American Machinist. When she isn't writing, Megan loves watching movies, hiking, and stargazing. Subscribe to Schooled By Science today to keep up with scientific discoveries or follow Megan on Twitter.