Big History Project
- ACTIVITY: Living in the Extremes of the Biosphere
- ACTIVITY: DQ Notebook 5.3
- READ: What Is the Biosphere?
- ACTIVITY: Infographic — Chemical Abundances: The Oceans
- ACTIVITY: Infographic — Chemical Abundances: A Meteorite
- ACTIVITY: Infographic — Chemical Abundances: Human Body
- WATCH: How Do Earth and Life Interact?
- WATCH: How We Proved An Asteroid Wiped Out The Dinosaurs
- READ: Gallery — How Do Earth and Life Interact?
- Quiz: How Do Earth and Life Interact
READ: What Is the Biosphere?
What is the Biosphere?
By Cynthia Stokes Brown
The History of a Word
Sometimes the history of a word can tell us a lot about what the word means. The study of words even has its own name: etymology. Often, a closer look at a word unfolds into another story, one that may connect to other people and other scientific studies.
The word biosphere was first used by English-Austrian geologist Eduard Suess (1831–1914) more than a hundred years ago in a four-volume work entitled Das Antlitz der Erde, or The Face of the Earth (1885–1908). Suess is also credited with being the first person to propose the existence of the supercontinent Gondwanaland and the ancient Tethys Ocean, based upon his work studying fossils in the Alps and his knowledge of the fossils of Glossopteris ferns that were found on several different continents.
At the time, no one knew about plate tectonics (German meteorologist Alfred Wegener didn’t put forth his theory on continental drift until 1912, a couple of years before Suess died), and the best explanation Suess could offer for the presence of marine fossils in the mountains was that the waters of the Tethys Ocean had flooded the whole Earth, not that the continents had actually drifted apart and changed. This is a great example of how limited evidence can sometimes lead scientists to settle on incorrect conclusions. It also demonstrates how the work of one person can build on that of others, collectively leading to new discoveries about the world around us.
Suess combined bio, meaning “life,” and sphere, referencing the Earth’s rounded surface, to express the portion of the Earth that supported life. He invented the word because he felt it was important to try to understand life as a whole rather than singling out particular organisms. He wrote in Das Antlitz der Erde:
The plant, whose deep roots plunge into the soil to feed, and which at the same time rises into the air to breathe, is a good illustration of organic life in the region of interaction between the upper sphere and the lithosphere, and on the surface of continents it is possible to single out an independent biosphere.
As our knowledge of life on the planet evolves, we’ve come to use the word biosphere as a way of explaining the entire intertwined network of life on Earth. This concept combines an understanding of geology, knowledge of the distinct layers that make up the Earth and its atmosphere, and an awareness of the biodiversity surrounding us. We can think of the biosphere as the habitat, or home, for all life on our planet, in all its forms, and with all its intricate biological and geological relationships.
Biosphere = the network of all life on Earth
Worlds Within Worlds
The biosphere is incredibly small — just a thin layer around a medium-size planet. But it’s also incredibly large, when you consider all of the different living things and our planet’s vast expanses of water and land. As with most things that seem large and encompassing, it’s possible to break down the biosphere and to use other words to describe specific environments or habitats.
These smaller areas are called “ecosystems,” and they are characterized by particular geologic or climatic features that accommodate certain forms of life. Oceans, jungles, and mountain ranges can be ecosystems, but even more specific places can be their own ecosystems. Think of a cave, a river or river valley, a coral reef, a city, or the “vent communities” that surround black smokers on the ocean floor. Altitude, latitude, longitude, climate, soils, and terrain can all contribute to the distinct features of an ecosystem — the Earth’s geologic processes have produced a multitude of diverse environments. The biosphere boasts incredible diversity and, even in extreme environmental conditions, astounding examples of life’s flexibility and determination.
Every organism — from baboons to bacteria, desert snakes to deep-sea sponges — has a specialized way to make a living as it vies for resources and energy and reproduces within its own environment. Examining these individual ecosystems, using biology and geology, reveals the many complex relationships between life and the planet we all share.
Want to join the conversation?
- I understand what the biosphere is - all living things of the world interacting. But what's the difference between a biosphere and a biome?(15 votes)
- A biome is a major ecological COMMUNITY. A biosphere is the planet EARTH and its life.(18 votes)
- As soon as I saw "Eduard Suess" a totally random question popped into my head: Any relation to the American children's author, Dr. Suess, (Theodore Suess Geisel, for whom Suess was his mother's family name)? I couldn't find the answer but I did discover that Eduard's grandson, Hans Suess--a physicist, lived in the same town in SoCal as the author Suess and their mail was purportedly mixed up from time-to-time, also (thanks Wikipedia) the physicist Suess's papers ended up in the UCSD's Geisel library (named in honor of author Suess) Small biosphere! Still don't know if they were related.(6 votes)
- No definitive answer coming because immigration officials had a way of "correcting" names, but it's Eduard Suess and Theodore Seuss Geisel, thus different spellings.(0 votes)
- If the biosphere comprises all living things on Earth, then what about when the living things die, i.e., does a dead tree still belong to the biosphere?(4 votes)
- Is oxygen dissolved in water a part of atmosphere?(3 votes)
- The biosphere is really thin. But how thin?(2 votes)
- Can anyone give me a sound idea about lithosphere and hydrosphere and the relation between lithosphere biosphere and hydrosphere ?(0 votes)
- How atmosphere is different from biosphere ?(0 votes)
- In paragraph 3 what is a biodiversity because i don't really understand.(0 votes)
- I understand what the biosphere is - all living things of the world interacting. But what's the difference between a biosphere and a biome?(0 votes)
- what does biosphere do?(0 votes)
- biosphere is the area or sphere that supports growth of living organisms. This is what biosphere do.(2 votes)