Environments

Earth's Many Environments

An environment is a collection of all the animals and plants in a specific area of land or water. Examples of environments are wetlands, deserts, grasslands, forests, and oceans. Scientists also refer to environments as ecosystems. Many people use the two terms interchangeably, for example, “desert environment” or “desert ecosystem.” Each environment has its own characteristics such as climate, soil or water make-up, and plant and animal life. Sometimes people just talk about “the environment.” They might say, “We need to help protect the environment.” What they mean is everything on Earth — the whole Earth environment.

Physical and Biological Environments

Earth is the only planet in our solar system - or anywhere else in the universe we know of - that has environments that support animal and plant life. Earth’s environments exist under a thin layer of protective gases called the atmosphere. Environments are shaped by many factors, one of which is weather.

Earth is the only planet in our solar system - or anywhere else in the universe we know of - that has environments that support animal and plant life. Earth’s environments exist under a thin layer of protective gases called the atmosphere. Environments are shaped by many factors, one of which is weather.

©NOAA

Scientists are interested in both physical environments and biological environments. A physical environment is made up of elements such as the atmosphere, climate, land, and water. The biological environment includes animals, plants, and bacteria. Both the physical and biological environments are connected to each other and can never be separated.

Environments Keep Changing

Environments are always changing. Day by day as weather, temperature, and daylight change, an environment also changes. Seasons are an example of how an environment can change. Your environment may have seasons very different from the environment kids somewhere else on Earth live in.

Changes Can Be a Big Deal

Some events have a huge impact on the environment. Hurricanes like Isabelle in 2003 dumped millions of liters of water on the southern coast of the United States. Much of the water will refill underground water supplies that plants, animals, and people will use for many years.

Some events have a huge impact on the environment. Hurricanes like Isabelle in 2003 dumped millions of liters of water on the southern coast of the United States. Much of the water will refill underground water supplies that plants, animals, and people will use for many years.

©NASA

Environmental changes may be small or large. Water levels changing at the beach may seem hardly noticeable to us, but they can be very important to a crab. Changes after a hurricane or volcano can be dramatic. They may cause the plants and animals that live in the environment to change or disappear.

Changes Can Take a Long Time

Environmental changes may take only a few months or years. Some may occur over hundreds or thousands of years. We humans only live about 60 to 80 years, so we often only think of environmental change based on what happens in our lifetime.

Types of Environments

Different types of environments exist all over our planet. When you are in the middle of one it is often easy to see what makes it special. Around the edges it becomes more difficult to recognize. It starts to blend with the environment it borders. These edges are places of great species diversity.

Scientists divide environments into smaller groups to better explore them and explain them. For example, forests are one of the major types of environment. But, there are different types of forests in different parts of the world. For example, rainforests are one forest type. Even rainforests are divided into tropical rainforests and temperate rainforests.

Urban

Urban©G.Ellis/GLOBIO.org

Urban environments may look different from other environments until you examine them closely. Urban environments have animals, plants, and resources just as other environments do. If you live in an urban environment, think about where your town meets the next type of environment. What different kinds of plants and animals begin to appear?

Tropical Rainforest

Tropical Rainforest©G.Ellis/GLOBIO.org

Tropical rainforests have the greatest number of animal and plant species of any environment on Earth. Located on either side of the equator, tropical rainforests are warm and wet. They get at least 200cm of rain each year. These environments are very lush. The forests support so much life, because they are always wet and receive the same amount of sunlight almost every day. Constant conditions help many species of plants and animals develop and survive.

Deserts

Deserts©G.Ellis/GLOBIO.org

Deserts are defined by how much rain they get. Most deserts, like the Sonoran in North America and Sahara in Africa, are hot. They receive less than 25cm of rain each year. The South and North Poles are also deserts but very cold.

Polar

Polar ©W.Enders/GLOBIO.org

Despite extreme cold weather, polar environments still have plant and animal diversity. Birds and mammals that live there are adapted to survive the polar extremes.

The southernmost polar region is called Antarctica, which means "no bears." The northern polar region is the Arctic. The name “Arctic” comes from the Greek word arctos, meaning “bear.” Polar bears are the bears of the Arctic. Polar penguins live only in Antarctica. They are a type of flightless bird.

Wetlands

Wetlands©G.Ellis/GLOBIO.org

Wetlands are environments where the land and the water meet and mix. Types of wetlands are swamps, bogs, marshes, and fens. Many wetlands have local names. In Canada, bogs are called muskegs. In the southeastern United States, swamps are called bayous.

Each wetland type is classified by the plant species that live in it. The world’s major wetland swamps are located in Africa, North America, South America, and Asia. The largest wetlands in the world are the bogs of the western Siberian lowlands in Russia. These bogs are three times the size of the United Kingdom. Wetlands are becoming one of the most endangered environments. Many of the animals and plants living there are also endangered.

Oceans

Oceans ©J.Stafford-Deitsch/GLOBIO.org

Oceans are the large body of continuous salt water that cover over 70% of Earth's surface. Earth has five oceans including the Atlantic, Pacific, Indian, Arctic, and Southern oceans. It also has 13 seas. Both vertebrates and invertebrates flourish in the ocean environment, including the smallest and largest animals on Earth.

Grasslands

Grasslands©G.Ellis/GLOBIO.org

Grasslands are environments where grasses are the main type of vegetation. The grass species are usually mixed with herbs and sometimes with shrubs. Less than 10% of the land is covered with trees. Grasslands are found on every continent except Antarctica.

In Africa (and elsewhere) grassland dotted with trees is called savanna. Grassland wildlife species include horses, elephants, zebras, antelopes, buffalo and bison, hawks, and snakes.

Environments and People

Many years ago, there were fewer people than there are today. This meant their impact on the environment was smaller. As human populations increased over time, so did their effect on the environments they inhabited.

Today, there are over 6.3 billion people on Earth. The quantity of natural resources we consume is creating more and faster changes to the environment of the whole Earth. Human activities can have huge and long-reaching impacts that affect multiple environments.

For example, people cut trees in the tropical rainforests of Borneo to sell the wood to furniture makers in Thailand. They, in turn, sell their tables and chairs to people in Europe, North America, and elsewhere. In this way, a human activity, say, buying furniture in North America, may be linked to damage to the tropical rainforest home of orangutans - halfway around the world. This happens because all species and environments are connected.

Environmental Conservation

In upcoming years, people will need to keep working together to solve environmental problems. Urgent problems include overfishing in the oceans, cutting rainforests, draining water from rivers and wetlands, and polluting of the air and water caused by cars and factories.

The solutions will come from conservation and the creation of new technologies that need fewer resources. Conservation is important to make certain that changes in the environment don’t happen too quickly. Rapid change can cause animals, plants, places, or people to become endangered or extinct. Each of us plays a very important role in conservation each day through the resources we use, reuse, and recycle.