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How to fix a broken ecosystem

Degraded landscapes have been one of the most challenging issues globally. It is known to be the source of some of the world’s greatest problems such as human poverty, species extinction and desertification. However, it is interesting to know that nature can heal itself. A broken ecosystem can easily be restored when given the right conditions.

The understanding that no degraded soil is permanently useless gives us hope towards achieving zero hunger. Even the worst soils that seem not to support plant life still have a potential to be revived. The only two things required to make this happen is knowledge and time. Fixing broken soils requires full understanding of all components of a functional ecosystem. The various factors that make the soil conducive to various life forms must be clearly understood as this guides us in planning soil restoration activities effectively. 

What makes a soil infertile?

To start with the problem, a soil loses its strength to support plant life as a result of the alterations in certain factors that promote soil biodiversity. These alterations negatively affect the properties of the soil and are always as a result of man’s interference with the natural environment. For instance, continuous deforestation exposes the soil to direct sunlight and facilitate soil erosion. 

Washed away top soil

Most soil organisms cannot survive harsh weather conditions as a result of direct exposure to sunlight. This brings about gradual loss of organisms which have functional roles in the soil ecosystem. Once this gap exists in the ecosystem, the environment loses balance as all organisms have interdependent relationships with each other. 

Certain organisms with the special function of breaking down organic matter for plant use are suddenly wiped out therefore plants have nothing to feed on. Also, certain organisms that help loosen the soil such as earthworms can’t perform their duties when wiped out. The plant roots therefore struggle to penetrate hardened soils.

What makes a healthy ecosystem?

There are 3 metrics to look out for when measuring the health of an ecosystem as described by John D Liu;

  • The Biomass
  • The Necromass
  • The Biodiversity

The biomass describes the living organic materials in the environment. It includes all organisms that are alive and present in a particular ecosystem. The biomass exists as plants, animals and microorganisms. The amount of biomass in an environment is dependent on whether soil conditions are favorable or not to the survival of living organisms. Hence, one could easily deduce how healthy the soil ecosystem is by measuring the amount of biomass present.

The necromass involves all dead materials in the ecosystem. It includes leaf litters and twigs, dead rotten woods, and the amount of carbon in the soil. A healthy ecosystem has a lot of dead materials in it. The dead materials break down into organic matter in the soil which becomes food for soil organisms and plants. The amount of necromass present in an ecosystem therefore directly influences the amount of biomass and biodiversity. The reason is simple. It determines food availability for living organisms after they have been broken down into simplest forms.

Soil biodiversity refers to the variety of different life forms present within the soil ecosystem. These living organisms depend on each other for survival as each of them perform vital functions in the ecosystem. The level of biodiversity present in an ecosystem speak volumes about the health of that ecosystem. When different species of organisms are allowed to coexist in a particular environment, the health of the ecosystem improves greatly. Each organism has something to contribute in building up an ecosystem. For example, birds and certain mammals help in the dispersion of plant seeds while feeding and passing out waste materials from their bodies. These seeds become established in new environments, and thrive if conditions are favorable.

These three metrics of the ecosystem form a structure known as the web of life. They are essential in the build up of living components in an ecosystem.

Steps in fixing a degraded ecosystem

Once an ecosystem has been proven to be degraded or broken, restoring its ability to support life comes in stages. The first step in fixing a degraded ecosystem is: 

Soil stabilization

Most degraded landscapes have been hardened, therefore it is difficult for water to infiltrate the soil. This poor infiltration rate prevents plant seeds from getting established in the soil to germinate into healthy plants. An easy way to promote water infiltration in soils is by stabilizing the soil. Soil stabilization involves creating places or structures in the soil for water to settle and infiltrate instead of existing as runoffs on steepy surfaces. Once water infiltrates the soil, the next stage of restoring the ecosystem begins. 

Harden soil means poor drainage

The establishment of pioneer plants

These are tiny plants growing up in the degraded ecosystem as first beneficiaries of the improving soil conditions. The pioneer plants continue to improve the soil conditions by increasing the amount of biomass, necromass and biodiversity in the soil. Dead leaves start to decay, thereby serving as nutrients to soil organisms and for the establishment of other plants. 

Plant succession

The next stage in fixing the broken ecosystem is: Plant succession. Once pioneer plants die and decay, a new plant species emerges in their stead. These new species are bigger in size and more woody than the initial species. They occupy the environment and perform their functions in building up the ecosystem more than pioneer plants. This cycle of succession continues until woody trees and shrubs are established in the environment. By this time, the health of the ecosystem must have been restored.

Want to learn more?

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