2008/9 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Climate and the Weather

A false-color composite of global oceanic and terrestrial photoautotroph abundance, from September 1997 to August 2000.  Provided by the SeaWiFS Project, NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center and ORBIMAGE.
A false-colour composite of global oceanic and terrestrial photoautotroph abundance, from September 1997 to August 2000. Provided by the SeaWiFS Project, NASA/ Goddard Space Flight Centre and ORBIMAGE.

The biosphere is the outermost part of the planet's shell — including air, land, surface rocks, and water — within which life occurs, and which biotic processes in turn alter or transform. From the broadest biophysiological point of view, the biosphere is the global ecological system integrating all living beings and their relationships, including their interaction with the elements of the lithosphere (rocks), hydrosphere (water), and atmosphere (air). This biosphere is postulated to have evolved, beginning through a process of biogenesis or biopoesis, at least some 3.5 billion years ago.

Biomass accounts for about 3.7 kg carbon per square metre of the earth's surface averaged over land and sea, making a total of about 1900 gigatonnes of carbon.

Origin and use of the term

The term "biosphere" was coined by geologist Eduard Suess in 1875, which he defined as:

The place on earth's surface where life dwells.

While this concept has a geological origin, it is an indication of the impact of both Darwin and Maury on the earth sciences. The biosphere's ecological context comes from the 1920s (see Vladimir I. Vernadsky), preceding the 1935 introduction of the term " ecosystem" by Sir Arthur Tansley (see ecology history). Vernadsky defined ecology as the science of the biosphere. It is an interdisciplinary concept for integrating astronomy, geophysics, meteorology, biogeography, evolution, geology, geochemistry, hydrology and, generally speaking, all life and earth sciences.

Narrow definition

A familiar scene on Earth which simultaneously shows the lithosphere, hydrosphere and atmosphere.
A familiar scene on Earth which simultaneously shows the lithosphere, hydrosphere and atmosphere.

Some life scientists and earth scientists use biosphere in a more limited sense. For example, geochemists define the biosphere as being the total sum of living organisms (the " biomass" or " biota" as referred to by biologists and ecologists). In this sense, the biosphere is but one of four separate components of the geochemical model, the other three being lithosphere, hydrosphere, and atmosphere. The narrow meaning used by geochemists is one of the consequences of specialization in modern science. Some might prefer the word ecosphere, coined in the 1960s, as all encompassing of both biological and physical components of the planet.

The Second International Conference on Closed Life Systems defined biospherics as the science and technology of analogs and models of Earth's biosphere; i.e., artificial Earth-like biospheres. Others may include the creation of artificial non-Earth biospheres — for example, human-centered biospheres or a native Martian biosphere — in the field of biospherics.

Gaia's biosphere

The concept that the biosphere is itself a living organism, either actually or metaphorically, is known as the Gaia hypothesis.

Extent of the earth's biosphere

Some theorists have postulated that the Earth is poorly suited to life, although nearly every part of the planet, from the polar ice caps to the Equator, supports life of some kind. Indeed, recent advances in microbiology have demonstrated that microbes live deep beneath the Earth's terrestrial surface, and that the total mass of microbial life in so-called "uninhabitable zones" may, in biomass, exceed all animal and plant life on the surface. The actual thickness of the biosphere on earth is hard to measure. Birds typically fly at altitudes of 650 to 2000 meters, and fish that live deep underwater can be found down to -8,372 meters in the Puerto Rico Trench.

There are more extreme examples for life on the planet: Ruppell's Vulture has been found at altitudes of 11,300 meters; Bar-headed Geese migrate at altitudes of at least 8,300 meters (over Mount Everest); Yaks live at elevations between 3,200 to 5,400 meters above sea level; mountain goats live up to 3,050 meters. Herbivorous animals at these elevations depend on lichens, grasses, and herbs but the biggest tree is the Tine palm or mountain coconut found 3,400 meters above sea level.

Microscopic organisms (e.g., bacteria) live at such extremes that, taking them into consideration puts the thickness of the biosphere much greater, but at minimum it extends from 5,400 meters above sea level to at least 9,000 meters below sea level.

Biosphere 1, Biosphere 2, Biosphere 3

When the word Biosphere is followed by a number, it is usually referring to a specific system. Thus:

  1. Biosphere 1 - The planet Earth
  2. Biosphere 2 - A laboratory in Arizona which contains 3.15 acres (13,000 m²) of closed ecosystem
  3. Biosphere 3 (aka BIOS-3) - Experiment conducted by Russians in 1967-68
  4. Biosphere J - An experiment in Japan

Biosphere 1

Our biosphere is divided into a number of biomes, inhabited by broadly similar flora and fauna. On land, biomes are separated primarily by latitude. Terrestrial biomes lying within the Arctic and Antarctic Circles are relatively barren of plant and animal life, while most of the more populous biomes lie near the Equator. Terrestrial organisms in temperate and arctic biomes have relatively small amounts of total biomass, smaller energy budgets, and display prominent adaptations to cold, including world-spanning migrations, social adaptations, homeothermy, estivation and multiple layers of insulation.

For important major components of Earth's biosphere, see: Ocean; Forest; Desert; Steppe; Lake; River.

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