In the AI Earth — Climate Change article, I discussed how climate change is a unifying factor in many of the environmental issues we face today. This article will focus on another one of our eight focus topics, which has implications just as devastating: the loss of biological diversity (or “biodiversity”).
Put simply, biodiversity is the variety of life in the world. In reality, there is nothing simple about that. It is all of the organisms on our planet and all of their interactions in the complex ecological web of life. It encompasses everything from the micro level (e.g., genetic variability within a species) to the macro level (e.g., the differences between entire ecosystems). In this global perspective, humans are only a small part, yet we are inextricably linked to biodiversity. It’s loss will affect our health, income, and livelihoods.
As human beings, we have started to lose our connection with nature. We sometimes fail to see how dependent we are on the services ecosystems provide. Healthy, biologically diverse ecosystems are responsible for the air we breathe, the food we eat, and the water we drink. Small oceanic plants called phytoplankton are responsible for a majority of Earth’s oxygen. Bees pollinate 30% of our crops. Eight different types of algae filter our freshwater systems.
Perhaps it seems like these particular species are a special case — almost the building blocks of an ecosystem where you can trace their direct role and effect; however, any species can have an incredibly profound impact on its surroundings. Consider one of my favorite examples: wolves literally changed the course of rivers. Yellowstone is our nation’s first national park and it was changed, perhaps irreversibly, after gray wolves were exterminated from the park nearly a century ago. Due to loss of predatory pressure, the elk population skyrocketed, leading to overgrazing of lands, including young willow and aspen trees. Bird populations plummeted due to loss of habitat, and beavers lost food sources and materials to build their dams. Lack of dams caused rivers to deepen, change flow, and erode their surroundings. These changes not only caused a visible alteration in the course of the river, but decreased the number of pools in which baby fish thrive. A richness of life was lost to Yellowstone, to the extent that, only 70 years after their extermination, gray wolves were reintroduced. Since then, the ecosystem is slowly being restored and the rivers have reformed.
Unfortunately, we are not looking at the temporary loss of just one species — we are looking at the permanent loss of millions. Extinctions rates are thought to be one thousand times higher than the natural extinction rate. Earth has had five mass extinction events, and it is now facing its sixth. This will be the first and only one that is not caused by natural phenomena — volcanic eruptions, asteroid collision, and tectonic shifts — but by human activity.
The human population is rising at an unprecedented rate, leading to an increase in human activity impacts, the extent of which the world has never seen. This activity includes habitat destruction, overexploitation of resources, invasive species introduction, and pollution. This leads to billions of populations being affected across the planet, with the number of living species on Earth plummeting by half in the past 40 years. Such a level of biodiversity loss cannot help but greatly diminish the benefits that humans derive from nature.
Biologically diverse systems are more healthy, productive, and beneficial to humans. To preserve ecosystem services that are vital to life, we need to mitigate the cataclysmic force that humans are becoming within the web of Earth’s ecosystem. The massive loss of biodiversity is a threat to our livelihoods and deserves to be treated as such.
There are currently initiatives to use machine learning and real-time data sequencing to automatically identify species, helping us determine what species there are, which ones are most immediately at risk, and perhaps how we can help. With artificial intelligence (AI) already taking root in the solution, now is the perfect time to expand upon the capabilities of AI for applications in biodiversity and conservation, making it our second central topic for the AI Earth Summit breakout sessions. By utilizing the tech available to us, we can find other unexpected solutions — like the reintroduction of wolves — to preserve the landscapes of our natural world and, ultimately, the intricate ecological web in which we live.
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Chloe Grubb is a senior in Robotics at Olin College of Engineering who has focused her time in user-centered (UX) design. She hopes to bridge the gap between engineering and design to create impactful experiences for users. Over the past four years, she has dedicated these skills to addressing the need for increased environmental awareness. Spearheading a Climate Action semester at her school and piloting a start-up, Drina, to allow users to make environmentally conscious decisions highlights her desire to utilize UX design to engage and excite people in the changes that need to happen for environmental stability. Being a contributor to AI Earth Summit is the next step in her environmental action involvement.