Resource Library

ENCYCLOPEDIC ENTRY

ENCYCLOPEDIC ENTRY

biosphere

biosphere

The biosphere is made up of the parts of Earth where life exists. The biosphere extends from the deepest root systems of trees to the dark environment of ocean trenches, to lush rain forests and high mountaintops.

Grades

5 - 12+

Subjects

Earth Science, Geography, Physical Geography

Powered by
Morgan Stanley

The biosphere is made up of the parts of Earth where life exists. The biosphere extends from the deepest root systems of trees, to the dark environment of ocean trenches, to lush rain forests and high mountaintops.

Scientists describe the Earth in terms of spheres. The solid surface layer of the Earth is the lithosphere. The atmosphere is the layer of air that stretches above the lithosphere. The Earth’s water—on the surface, in the ground, and in the air—makes up the hydrosphere.

Since life exists on the ground, in the air, and in the water, the biosphere overlaps all these spheres. Although the biosphere measures about 20 kilometers (12 miles) from top to bottom, almost all life exists between about 500 meters (1,640 feet) below the ocean’s surface to about 6 kilometers (3.75 miles) above sea level.

Origin of the Biosphere

The biosphere has existed for about 3.5 billion years. The biosphere’s earliest life-forms, called prokaryotes, survived without oxygen. Ancient prokaryotes included single-celled organisms such as bacteria and archaea.

Some prokaryotes developed a unique chemical process. They were able to use sunlight to make simple sugars and oxygen out of water and carbon dioxide, a process called photosynthesis. These photosynthetic organisms were so plentiful that they changed the biosphere. Over a long period of time, the atmosphere developed a mix of oxygen and other gases that could sustain new forms of life.

The addition of oxygen to the biosphere allowed more complex life-forms to evolve. Millions of different plants and other photosynthetic species developed. Animals, which consume plants (and other animals) evolved. Bacteria and other organisms evolved to decompose, or break down, dead animals and plants.

The biosphere benefits from this food web. The remains of dead plants and animals release nutrients into the soil and ocean. These nutrients are re-absorbed by growing plants. This exchange of food and energy makes the biosphere a self-supporting and self-regulating system.

The biosphere is sometimes thought of as one large ecosystem—a complex community of living and nonliving things functioning as a single unit. More often, however, the biosphere is described as having many ecosystems.


Biosphere Reserves

People play an important part in maintaining the flow of energy in the biosphere. Sometimes, however, people disrupt the flow. For example, in the atmosphere, oxygen levels decrease and carbon dioxide levels increase when people clear forests or burn fossil fuels such as coal and oil. Oil spills and industrial wastes threaten life in the hydrosphere. The future of the biosphere will depend on how people interact with other living things within the zone of life.

In the early 1970s, the United Nations established a project called Man and the Biosphere Programme (MAB), which promotes sustainable development. A network of biosphere reserves exists to establish a working, balanced relationship between people and the natural world.

Currently, there are 563 biosphere reserves all over the world. The first biosphere reserve was established in Yangambi, Democratic Republic of Congo. Yangambi, in the fertile Congo River Basin, has 32,000 species of trees and such endemic species as forest elephants and red river hogs. The biosphere reserve at Yangambi supports activities such as sustainable agriculture, hunting, and mining.

One of the newest biosphere reserves is in Yayu, Ethiopia. The area is developed for agriculture. Crops such as honey, timber, and fruit are regularly cultivated. However, Yayu’s most profitable and valuable resource is an indigenous species of plant, Coffea arabica. This shrub is the source of coffee. Yayu has the largest source of wild Coffea arabica in the world.

Fast Fact

Biosphere 2
In 1991, a team of eight scientists moved into a huge, self-contained research facility called Biosphere 2 in Oracle, Arizona. Inside an enormous, greenhouse-like structure, Biosphere 2 created five distinct biomes and a working agricultural facility. Scientists planned to live in Biosphere 2 with little contact with the outside world. The experiments carried out in Biosphere 2 were designed to study the relationship between living things and their environmentand to see whether humans might be able to live in space one day.

The mission was supposed to last 100 years, with two teams of scientists spending 50 years each in the facility. Instead, two teams made it just four years, and the scientists moved out in 1994. Though the live-in phase is over, research is still taking place in Biosphere 2, with a main focus on global warming.

Media Credits

The audio, illustrations, photos, and videos are credited beneath the media asset, except for promotional images, which generally link to another page that contains the media credit. The Rights Holder for media is the person or group credited.

Writers
Kim Rutledge, Kim Rutledge
Melissa McDaniel, Melissa McDaniel
Santani Teng, Santani Teng
Hilary Hall, Hilary Hall
Tara Ramroop, Tara Ramroop
Erin Sprout, Erin Sprout
Jeff Hunt, Jeff Hunt
Diane Boudreau, Diane Boudreau
Hilary Costa, Hilary Costa
Illustrators
Mary Crooks, National Geographic Society,
Tim Gunther, Tim Gunther
Editors
Jeannie Evers, Emdash Editing, Emdash Editing
Kara West, Kara West
Educator Reviewer
Nancy Wynne,
Producer
National Geographic Society, National Geographic Society
other
Last Updated

May 20, 2022

For information on user permissions, please read our Terms of Service. If you have questions about licensing content on this page, please contact ngimagecollection@natgeo.com for more information and to obtain a license. If you have questions about how to cite anything on our website in your project or classroom presentation, please contact your teacher. She or he will best know the preferred format. When you reach out to him or her, you will need the page title, URL, and the date you accessed the resource.

Media

If a media asset is downloadable, a download button appears in the corner of the media viewer. If no button appears, you cannot download or save the media.

Text

Text on this page is printable and can be used according to our Terms of Service.

Interactives

Any interactives on this page can only be played while you are visiting our website. You cannot download interactives.

Related Resources