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Learning about the Biosphere

written by: Laura Jean Karr•edited by: Rebecca Scudder•updated: 10/31/2010

Find out exactly what is the biosphere and what it means in the study of environmental science. From the origins of the term through what is contained in a biosphere, get a better understanding on this area of ecology here.

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    What Does Biosphere Mean?

    In 1875, a professor of Geology at the University of Vienna named Eduard Suess created the term “biosphere" in the publication of his work Das Antlitz der Erde, which translated means The Face of the Earth. Suess maintained that the planet was in itself a life source and that the surface of the planet was the encompassing whole of life systems; a complete biosphere where each system of life from the ocean to trees and mammals could be held. It is interesting to note, that though Suess was a geologist, his work helped to form the basis for the field of ecology.

    The shortest definition to answer the question, what is the biosphere? is simply the whole of all ecosystems in existence. The biosphere is the containment of life on the planet and can also be referred to as the zone of life on Earth. For more information on other areas of environmental science that discuss ecology, see What is an Ecological System? and Causes of Change in an Ecosystem.

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    Looking Inside the Biosphere

    Bioms A biosphere is broken down into areas called biomes, also known as ecosystems. Each biome is like a mini-community of life which is defined by the climate and geography of a certain area. For example, in North American there are large ecological areas known as prairies. A prairie area is defined by the climate of that area, the plant spacing, the plant structure and by the leaf type only associated with that area. The prairie area is therefore considered its own grassland biome within the whole of the biosphere. There are several grassland biomes on the planet, with each location having a different name, like prairie in North America or steppe in Asia. Overall, when answering the basic question of what is the biosphere, it can also be answered by stating that it is the combination of all known biomes on Earth.

    In the image to the upper left is a color coded break down of the biomes within our biosphere. The light purple highlighted areas show where there are grassland biomes; click the image for a larger view.

    Every part of the planet sustains some form of life, from the cold climate area of the polar icecaps to the warmer climate area surrounding the equator. Just because there are some areas on Earth that are deemed uninhabitable for some species of organic life that does not mean that those areas do not sustain a mass of microbial life.

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    Overall Biosphere

    Seawifs global biosphere Since what is the biosphere can be answered as it being an overall sphere that houses the whole of life on the planet there is a comprehensive understanding that the biosphere not only supports life but maintains life as well. The maintenance of such life is what helps to create the diversity within the biosphere as each biom, or ecosystem can support various forms of life based on the biom area itself. In the image to the left is an overall view of the Earth’s biosphere; click on the image to get a larger view.

    There are instances of man made biosphere’s such as the Biosphere 2 that is located at the University of Arizona in the United States. Biosphere 2 is so far the most successful creation of a biosphere to date and can be checked out online at: Biosphere 2

    *images used are public domain, with the thermo biosphere image being created by the Sea-viewing Wide Field-of-view Sensor (SeaWiFS) Project