How Matter Cycling Can Impact Environmental Health

Instructor: David Wood

David has taught Honors Physics, AP Physics, IB Physics and general science courses. He has a Masters in Education, and a Bachelors in Physics.

What is matter cycling? Learn what the term means, how humans can cause matter to cycle, and how it can have positive or negative effects on the health of an ecosystem.

What is Matter Cycling?

The earth is huge, and yet almost all of the matter on our planet was there when it first formed. The matter of the earth mostly stays on the earth, it just moves from place to place. This process of matter moving from one form to another, and from one location to another, is called matter cycling. In other words, the matter on the earth has been recycled multiple times across history.

The cycling of matter can be broken up into individual cycles like the carbon cycle, nitrogen cycle, and water cycle. The carbon cycle includes processes like photosynthesis, respiration, combustion, nutrition, industrial processes, diffusion, and decomposition. The nitrogen cycle includes various processes completed by bacteria in the soil, including decomposition by bacteria and fungi. The water cycle simply involves the moving of water around the world through precipitation, evaporation, the flow of rivers and so forth. Humans also involve themselves in matter cycling through composting, crop rotation, use of fertilizers, and other chemicals.

In this lesson were going to look at examples of humans causing matter cycling, and the ways they affect the health of an ecosystem - both positively and negatively.

Positive Examples of Matter Cycling

Positive examples of matter cycling include composting, crop rotation, and worm bins.

Composting is where humans save waste products like vegetable matter or manure and turn it into compost material that is great for growing plants. This is a way of reusing the nutrients in decaying matter, and is better for the environment than simply throwing these things away. Composting returns nutrients to ecosystems, and reduces the negative impact of human activities.

Composting bin
Composting bin

Crop rotation is the process where farmers change the crop that is grown in a particular area season by season. The reason this is done is to protect the nutrients in the soil. If the same plant is grown in a particular plot of land year after year, eventually the soil will have all its nutrients used up. However since different plants use different combinations of nutrients, switching crops can help a lot with this problem. Farmers will also sometimes leave a plot of land fallow for a season, which is where no crops are grown on the land at all. This helps the land to rebuild its nutrient content. Crop rotation improves fertility, reduces issues with soil erosion, and increases the amount that you can grow on a piece of land. Crop rotation is good for the natural balance of an ecosystem.

Farmers often rotate their crops
Farmers often rotate their crops

Worm bins (otherwise known as vermicomposting) are an alternative to composting that involves allowing worms to break down material and produce compost. Proponents say that worm bins produce compost faster, and the results are more nutrient-rich.

Negative Examples of Matter Cycling

Through human activities, matter cycling can also cause problems. Examples include fertilizer runoff and bioaccumulation.

Fertilizer runoff is when nutrients from fertilized soil, such as in farming areas, find their way into nearby streams and rivers. This might seem like it would be a good thing, after all more fertilizer means more plants can grow. But when fertilizers find their ways into rivers, lakes, and oceans, the result is often large production of algae. This algae reduces oxygen levels and cankill animal life, like fish. It can produce huge dead zones, where most sea life cannot survive.

Fertilizers can run off into rivers
Fertilizer can run off into rivers

Bioaccumulation is where substances build up in an individual animal, or as they pass along the food chain. This is most commonly used to refer to pesticides and herbicides, which can find their way into the food chain. An animal eating a plant containing pesticides might be perfectly fine the first time they do it, but levels of the pesticide can gradually increase in their bodies as they eat more and more. Then, a predator who eats one or more of these animals can end up consuming much larger quantities of pesticides.

Chemicals can pass along the food chain and accumulate
Chemicals can pass along the food chain and accumulate

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