‚Mid pleasures and palaces though we may roam, be it ever so humble, there’s no place like home,’ knows already the famous 19th century song ‘Home! Sweet Home!’ Just how sweet and valuable a home is – as with many things- you might not realize until you lose it. The millions of currently homeless typhoon victims can tell you a thing or two about it. But not only for us humans a place to call home is essential, also to every other species on god’s green earth. Animal or plants call the area they populate ‘habitat’. But what makes a habitat a home? Nice furniture and a cozy fire place? Let’s see and go on an expedition across our green Earth’s habitats.
Shelter on Flotsam Fragments
Habitats can be tiny. Less than 5 millimeters across is the perhaps most peculiar and modern-day habitat. Despite its miniature size, millions of bacteria find a home here, and water striders even lay their eggs on it. Curious what that could be? By accident, humans have created a new home, the ‘Plastisphere’. As we dump millions of tons of plastic waste into the ocean every year, much of it ends up as microplastic. Don’t be fooled, it cruelly harms most marine animals that unintentionally swallow it, but it is also hosting microbes not found in open water. Among them also the nasty ones, like Vibrio bacteria that cause cholera. In this fashion, such plastic micro rafts impressively show one feature of habitats: providing shelter.
The Oldest Habitat?
Shelter to a diverse community of organisms, which could even include fish, might also be provided by the Earth’s possibly oldest habitat. If not the oldest then it is at least the most extreme: Lake Vostok was buried quietly underneath 3700 meters of Antarctic ice for 15 million years, till scientists shouted ‘Drill baby, drill’ in the 1990s. And drilling they did, most recently last year. The possible habitat they found was ice cold, pitch-black, under extreme pressure from the ice above and showed toxically high levels of oxygen. Doesn’t sound much like a cozy habitat, does it? Indeed, scientists are still not sure whether the genetic traces of microorganisms and fish they drilled upon are just contaminations. If the lake was indeed sterile, it would make the only body of water on Earth empty of life. Life always demands for some basic environmental factors like soil, moisture, range of temperature, and availability of light as well as biotic factors such as the availability of food, which habitats provide.
Habitats Driving Wind and Weather
Habitats can provide much more. Their own weather, for instance. Wouldn’t it be odd to need a private weather forecast for your living room? Well, the weather forecast for the world’s second biggest living room is not too exiting: Slightly overcast, 365 days a year. Weather makes its way into Cloud Ladder Hall, a gigantic cave in China and gets trapped inside. Anyway, the clouds don’t matter that much, as the 6 million cubic meter hall is equally dark as lake Vostok. It shows, however, that habitat crucially provide a climate for the species inhabiting it. And not only the climate inside but also way beyond a habitat, as the next stop on the expedition will show.
Like motherhood and apple pie, all species need water. Water from rain that is recycled by one of the worlds’ biggest habitats: Forests. In forests water evaporates, rises to the air, rains again and creates winds, which bring even more water with them. If forest habitats are lost, the rainfall in the continental interiors may decline by up to 90 per cent. To remind you, Sahara the world’s biggest desert was a lush wetland habitat just 6000 years ago.
Beyond the regional environment, forest habitats support a stable climate for the whole wide world as storage of incredible amounts of CO2. What happens when our climate losses this stability was dreadfully witnessed by the sufferers of typhoon Haiyan. While tropical storms are likely to get more powerful in a warming world, they ironically speed up the warming themselves. Take hurricane Katrina, tearing up around 320 million trees when hitting the US east coast in 2005, thus releasing over half the amount of carbon absorbed annually by forests in the US. A percentage likely to be much higher in the tropical Philippines.
Luckily there is a cure offered –how could it be otherwise- by a habitat. Mangroves trees in Southeast Asia are cutting greenhouse gas emissions while protecting against deadly tsunamis or typhoons. Shielding mangrove habitats in Northern Samar, Philippines helped reduce damage from the Nov. 8 storm, as they did during the 2004 tsunami all over the region. Considering this, it is worthwhile investing in such habitats, in addition to immediate disaster relief, to reverse the trend of the Philippines losing about 1 percent of mangroves a year. Mind you, these regional habitats harbor 51 of the global 70 mangrove species diversity.
Diversity in Potential and Threats
Diversity is also the buzzword of the last habitat on our journey: From evergreen rain forests to perpetual ice and snow, from more than 12 m of annual precipitation to high deserts, and from sea level to almost 9 000 m in altitude. It covers around 27 percent of the earth’s land surface, occurs on all continents, in all latitude zones. Of the 20 plant species that provide 80 percent of the world’s food, six originated here: maize, potatoes, barley, sorghum, quinoa, tomatoes and apples.You name it, this habitat has it. But how is this even possible?
By adding another dimension, altitude, compressing a wide range of environmental conditions into a relatively short distance. Often this habitat provide islands, suitable to species which only occur here –so called endemics- isolated from surrounding unfavorable conditions.
We are of course talking about Mountains. This diversity in mountain habitats is also home to very distinctive human communities. 720 million mountain people are directly dependent on the habitat for their sustenance and wellbeing, but also billions of lowland people benefit from mountain energy, timber, biodiversity, recreation and spiritual values. And water: As the water towers of the world, mountains provide freshwater to more than half of humanity.
At the same time humanity must learn not to take their homes for granted. Mountain habitats expose why: While they naturally are high-risk environments with avalanches, landslides, volcanic eruptions or earthquakes, over generations mountain people, as well as plants and animals have learned how to live with such difficulties. After all it takes time to make a home. But now, their well-adapted existence is at peril. Habitat degradation caused by unsustainable clearing of land or effects of climate change, for instance, disturb the delicate balance within and beyond the habitats. As result, rare species of plants and animals face extinction, global and regional climates conditions are distorted and mountain people, already amongst the world’s poorest and most disadvantaged, face further hardship. As this is symptomatic for many habitats of our green Earth, action is urgent to protect our homes.
Habitats as Key
International Mountain Day Address
Doing so and underscoring that ‘Mountains are the key to a sustainable future’ the International Mountain Day is held on 11 December with the identical motto. ‘To create awareness about the importance of mountains to life, to highlight the opportunities and constraints in mountain development and to build partnerships that will bring positive change to the world’s mountains’ says the UN. A good example how this can be done, provides Mt Makiling, a dormant volcano in Laguna province on the island of Luzon, Philippines. The 1,090 m high mountain is a vital habitat, harboring rich biodiversity and providing water and thermal energy to many. Already in 1933 people realized the importance of their very own habitat and declared Mount Makiling a National Park. Now, in October 2013 the mountain was inaugurated the 33rd of the ASEAN Heritage Parks, representatives of Southeast Asia’s ecosystems and an urgent contribution to the protection of its plentiful values. The parks are administered by the ASEAN Centre for Biodiversity (ACB), suitably based at the foot of Makiling, and supported through the Biodiversity and Climate Change Project of GIZ, the German development cooperation. Both stress the parks as a roadmap for all aspects of sustainable mountain development, be it infrastructure, tourism, water or biodiversity. To achieve this, all concerned stakeholders need to be involved, knowing about the fragility of their mountain habitat, as well as all the other places people, plants and animals call home. As the song aptly ends:
‘Sweet, sweet home!
There’s no place like home,
there’s no place like home!’