How do people affect ecosystems?

Written by jonas martonas
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How do people affect ecosystems?
Undisturbed areas are becoming more and more rare as the population increases and expands. (In the Forest image by Kemper Boyd from

Nearly every activity a person does affects the ecosystem, either positively or negatively. The magnitude of these effects can vary depending on the type of ecosystem a person lives in or where they are at any given moment. Increased fossil fuel emissions and excessive fertiliser applications have resulted in regional and global effects, which present new challenges in the way we can sustainably coexist with nature.


Development of buildings, shopping malls, car parks and new roads all need a starting place. Typically, that starting place is natural, pristine lands such as prairies, forests and wetlands. As these systems are lost from the landscape, so too are the various services they provide. Many natural systems, particularly forests and wetlands, are able to store large amounts of nutrients such as carbon and nitrogen. When these nutrients are retained within these systems, they are deterred from polluting nearby waterways and other ecosystems that are not suited to large nutrient sequestration. When these services are lost, there is a disruption in nutrient flows across an ecosystem, a disruption that further affects adjacent ecosystems.


Large-scale agriculture usually requires large applications of mineral fertiliser, which is particularly high in nitrogen and phosphorus. Unfortunately, these applied nutrients do not always stay on the agricultural field. Rather, rain and wind carry the fertiliser to nearby streams and rivers, resulting in algal blooms. These blooms consume the available oxygen in the water, thereby stressing other aquatic organisms. Fertiliser applications on home lawns and gardens can have similar effects, though on a smaller scale.

Fossil Fuel Emissions

Fossil fuel combustion has increased over the past several decades as the population has continued to climb and more homes have become multi-car households. This has increased the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and has exacerbated the greenhouse effect. As a result, there has been an increasing push toward other forms of renewable energy that are less detrimental to the environment, particularly the atmosphere.


Population increases can affect multiple ecosystems, often simultaneously. For example, as coastal regions become home to more and more people each year, homes and shopping centres are constructed, existing roads are widened and new roads are constructed. The construction occurs at the expense of forests, wetlands and prairies, increased traffic increases local fossil fuel combustion and more wastewater is inefficiently treated, resulting in additional nutrients to contaminate coastal waters.

Smart Choices

Because we as a species exert such an influence on our surrounding ecosystems, making smart lifestyle choices can lessen the detrimental impact on the environment, and even reverse some of the recent trends. Cutting back on our reliance on oil, such as by biking or walking instead of driving, would lower the amount of carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere, as well as other ozone-destroying chemicals. Also, using organic fertilisers rather than mass-produced mineral fertilisers can minimise excess nutrient loading to aquatic systems, which will then ultimately improve local and regional water quality.

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