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National Science Foundation

Life | Background

If climate had no significant impact on Earth's ecosystems and living things, then climate change would be a mere curiosity of planetary science. Instead, we know that ecosystems depend on predictable annual weather patterns for survival. Changing weather patterns affect where plants can grow and where animals can thrive. Even small changes in climate can tip the delicate balance of competition and cooperation among the residents of an ecosystem. The potential for climate change to disrupt life on Earth makes studying it essential.

Earth's ecosystems are not only affected by climate, they also play a major role in influencing global climate. Living things regulate the composition of the atmosphere. Plants use carbon dioxide (CO2) to grow and produce oxygen; when plants die, microorganisms break them down into the organic matter of soil, CO2, methane gas, and other byproducts. Changes in land use or average temperature can disrupt an ecosystem's cycling and storage of carbon, creating the potential for large amounts of CO2 or methane to be released into the atmosphere. Earth's forests, marine environments, wetlands, tundra, and other habitats together store vast amounts of carbon. Land cover and the choices humans make about determining where plants will grow can have a profound impact on both regional and global climate. Understanding the biological processes involved in the carbon cycle is essential to predicting future climate, and efforts are currently underway to incorporate living systems into global climate models.

NSF supports biologists as they seek a greater understanding of what a warmer global climate means to life on Earth. NSF supports 63 percent of the fundamental environmental biology research at U.S. academic institutions, fostering advances in the biological sciences through research grants and providing the infrastructure to enable those advances.

The urgency of this research comes sharply into focus when we realize that our own species is highly dependent on Earth's ecosystems. Living organisms do much more for us than provide food, clothing and shelter. Plants are not only responsible for the very oxygen we breathe; they help to regulate the temperature and moisture of the places we call home. Plant roots prevent topsoil from eroding away or burying our houses. Forests of swaying trees and acres of wetlands literally calm storms by dissipating wind and wave energy. Microorganisms decompose our garbage and help us digest our food. Without the ecosystems of the world, big and small, our existence would be impossible.