The extraction of resources refers to the withdrawing of materials from the environment for human use, including fossil fuels (oil, gas, and coal), rocks and minerals, biomass via deforestation and fishing and hunting, and water. Since the first coal-fired steam engines of the 1700s, we continue to increase the rate at which we extract and transport resources for use across the globe. Human innovations have also allowed us to expand where we extract resources, including miles below the Earth’s surface, from the deep sea, and remote regions from the tropics to the poles. Due to the demands of the growing global human population and expectations of higher standards of living, we will need to continue find sustainable and renewable resources to support modern life.
The effects of resource extraction are having far-reaching impacts on the Earth system. Some of these effects include:
- The destruction of habitats, which affects species populations, ranges, biodiversity, and interactions between organisms. However, the method we use to extract a resource can determine how much we disrupt a habitat. For example, wholesale deforestation typically fragments ecosystems, which can cause species extinctions. In contrast, methods of sustainable logging often have minimal impact on local biodiversity and species populations. Similarly, fishing methods, such as bottom trawls and longlines trap everything in their path, often unnecessarily killing other organisms including seabirds, turtles, and marine mammals (called bycatch). Using different kinds of traps can significantly reduce bycatch.
- Increasing the amount of pollutants and waste released into the environment, which reduces air, water, and soil quality, potentially harming the health of humans and other species.
- Decreasing soil quality. Mining and deforestation can destabilize soils, increase erosion, and reduce the nutrient levels in terrestrial ecosystems. Increasing erosion can also decrease water quality by increasing sediment and pollutants in rivers and streams.
- Reducing freshwater availability, both for human consumption and for ecosystems. Ground water extraction can also cause the sinking of land (called subsidence).
- Increasing seismic activity (earthquakes) in some regions from the use of hydraulic fracking to remove oil and gas. Fracking uses water, sand, and chemicals to create new or expand existing cracks in rocks that allow oil and gas to flow into drillholes for extraction.Increasing human population growth. With the extraction of resources and with industrialization, energy, food, water, and medical care became more available and reliable, allowing the global human population to increase, which has dramatic impacts on global climate and ecosystems.
- Climate change. The use of extracted fossil fuels is the primary cause of current climate change, which is altering the Earth’s ecosystems and causing global human and environmental health problems.
Can you think of additional cause and effect relationships between the extraction of resources and other parts of the Earth system?
Visit the burning of fossil fuels, freshwater use, deforestation and reforestation, and habitat loss and restoration pages to learn more about how resource and land use affects global climate and ecosystems.