What Is a Nutrient Cycle?
Nutrient cycling is undoubtedly one of the most important occurrences in an ecosystem. But why? There are certain elements that are essential to life and must be recycled in order for any of us (and any living organism for that matter) to exist, including carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, phosphorus, and nitrogen.
You might be asking yourself “what is a nutrient cycle, anyway?” The nutrient cycle describes the use, movement, and recycling of nutrients in the environment. Nutrient cycles include both living and nonliving components and involve biological, geological, and chemical processes.
In simpler terms, the nutrient cycle is nature’s recycling system, overseeing how nutrients move from the physical environment into living organisms, and then back into the physical environment to start the cycle over again. It is the movement and exchange of organic and inorganic matter through the production cycle of living matter.
- Nutrient cycling allows matter to convert to forms which can be used by different organisms. Take nitrogen for example. This element is essential to plants; however, plants are only able to absorb it in two forms—nitrate and ammonium. So plant growth would be significantly limited without the modification of nitrogen into these forms.
- Nutrient cycling allows elements to be transferred to more accessible locations, such as the soil. This is critical since many elements are typically found in areas most living organisms do not have access to. For example, nitrogen is usually found in the atmosphere rather than the soil.
- Nutrient cycles allow for the storage of elements, which is important because certain organisms only require a small quantity of a particular nutrient to sustain life. In a nutrient cycle, elements remain stored in their natural reservoirs, and are only released to different organisms in an appropriate quantity.
- Any given ecosystem requires a state of equilibrium to function adequately. Nutrient cycles restore ecosystems to the equilibrium state, and therefore play an important role in keeping the ecosystem functioning.
- All organisms, living and non-living depend on one another. Nutrient cycles link living organisms with non-living organisms through the flow of nutrients.
What are the Main Nutrient Cycles in an Ecosystem?
The main nutrient cycles in an ecosystem include:
- Carbon cycle: Moves between the atmosphere (in the form of carbon dioxide), terrestrial ecosystems (plants and soils), and aquatic ecosystems.
- Nitrogen cycle: This cycle is a process that converts atmospheric nitrogen into usable forms for plants and organisms.
- Phosphorus cycle: Through the weathering of rocks and minerals, phosphorus is released through the soil, water, and organisms.
- Water cycle: The continuous movement of water results in a critical component of life. Water is processed through evaporation, condensation, precipitation, and runoff.
- Sulfur cycle: Sulfur is released through sulfur dioxide (SO2) from volcanic eruptions, the conversion of sulfur compounds in the atmosphere, and the incorporation of sulfur into living organisms.
- Calcium cycle: Calcium is released into soils and water, which is then taken up by plants. This impacts the formation of bones and shells in organisms.
- Potassium cycle: As a macronutrient essential for plant growth, potassium is released into soils where plants can access it.
Why Is Soil Preservation Vital to Nutrient Cycling?
Through the nutrient cycle, elements are infinitely recycled in a natural ecosystem, a process essential to any living being. However, in recent years, population growth and increased human activity have compromised nutrient cycles. Agriculture, for example, has caused significant changes to this natural process, because harvesting crops removes nutrients from the soil.
Agriculture also influences the nutrient cycle in another way: it accelerates land erosion. Both plowing and tilling break up the soil, making it easier for water to carry nutrients away in runoff. If too many nutrients from eroded soil, and from human and animal waste, make their way into our waterways, the result will be large, uncontrolled blooms of algae, which compromise aquatic ecosystems.
What is the Function of the Ecosystem in Nutrient Cycling?
An ecosystem is the cooperative interaction of living and nonliving elements in an environment. They all play a part in systematically moving vital nutrients through their cycle. Animals, plants, weather, and soil all move and convert nutrients through the different stages of their journey.
An ecosystem requires a delicate balance among all the components to ensure effective nutrient movement. The reverse is also true. The movement of nutrients through the environment sustains the proper balance of ecosystem members.
How Can I Help?
These impacts on the natural nutrient cycles are unsustainable, with the land losing too many nutrients to the water, and eventually to the sea. We need a new approach to these types of human activities in order to avoid disrupting nutrient cycling altogether.
If you’re looking for ways to reduce your footprint and impact on our planet and its critical processes, keep visiting our blog, and learn more about Spring Power & Gas’s environmentally focused energy and natural gas solutions.