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Natural diversity secures preconditions for life on earth

Diversity is a basic feature of nature. One square metre of any area in nature - forested ridges, fens, and even brooks – contain dozens, sometimes even hundreds of plant and animal species. Just 100 metres away, nature can change completely: what started as dry ridge transforms into a damp hollow, or a brook has drained into a forest pond. Different collections of species live in each of these places. It is in this kind of variation and abundance of species where the richness and vitality of nature lurks.
A diverse natural meadow in Inari © Riku Lumiaro

It all starts with geology

The foundation of natural diversity is in the ground. Soil and rock – together with the climate – set the preconditions for life. They dictate the physical characteristics and dimensions of the environment: the quality and thickness of mineral soil and the depth of a lake basin. They define where the water is stagnant and where it flows. Flora and fauna take it from here. Plants, animals, fungi, and micro-organisms fill the soil or water and modify the conditions for life in their environment. They create nutrition networks and other relationships. The result is a functioning ecosystem in which each organism has a significant role.

Hundreds of habitats...

A specific physical environment together with species that are specific to it form a natural habitat. Natural habitats represent the upper level of diversity. However, they can be identified by features that are specific to each natural habitat just as species are identified by their characteristics. Some natural habitats, for example, dry heath forests, are very common in Finland. Others are quite rare. A total of about 400 natural habitats have been identified in Finland. Nearly half of these are classified as endangered.

Mountain birch forest on the slope of Saana.  © Riku Lumiaro

... tens of thousands of species...

Ever since life first emerged on Earth, it has moved toward a greater variety of species. There have been dips along the way: five periods are known in the planet's history in which there have been mass extinctions of species. The most recent mass extinction was caused by a collision of an asteroid about 66 million years ago. This wiped the dinosaurs off the earth.

The Apollo butterfly is the largest butterfly in Finland, which has declined because of overgrowth in its open living habitats. © Riku Lumiaro

At present an estimated 5–30 million species live on earth. The array of species is extensive in Finland as well: about 48,000 species. More than half of the species in Finland are insects and other invertebrates. The next most common are fungi, plants, and algae. Mammals, birds, fish, and other vertebrates are in the minority: about 400 species of them live in Finland.

About 48,000 species are believed to live in Finland

More than half of the species in Finland are insects and other invertebrates. About 400 species of vertebrates, such as mammals and birds, are seen in Finland.

... Endless gene combinations

The development of today's large variety of species would not have been possible without genetic diversity. Genetic variation exists within each species; each individual has a slightly different genome. Thanks to this variation, species can change and adapt to new situations and environments. As adaptation moves forward, new variations of species emerge as well as subspecies and ultimately completely new species. The process cannot take place if the number of individuals in a species declines very much. When a population shrinks, its genetic reserves decline. This can be fateful for the preservation of the species.

Diversity in nature brings a world of possibilities

All levels of diversity - biotopes, species, and genetic heritage – are all important. They are also intertwined with each other. Abundance and vitality in biotopes maintain diversity among species. The genome, meanwhile, ensures the survival of individual species. Humans have many reasons to nurture diversity in nature. Healthy and diverse nature ensures us clean air to breathe and clean water. It produces fish and other natural goods and provides pollination for many beneficial plants.

Thinning in a commercial forest. © Riku Lumiaro

Nature also creates preconditions for forestry, tourism, and other livelihoods. It serves as a source for recreation and inspiration and is part of our cultural heritage. The significance of nature as a carbon sink is immeasurably important. Not all possibilities provided by nature are known. Living nature is like a bottomless tank of raw materials and insights. It has possibilities for helping produce new medicines and raw materials, or for giving models for developing completely new kinds of products.

Sixth wave of extinction is under way

Humanity has seriously abused nature. Human activity is responsible for the loss of about a third of the world's natural diversity. The sixth wave of extinction in the natural history of the earth is now under way. Vertebrate species are disappearing from the earth about 100 times the natural rate.

The same trend can be seen in other groups of organisms. More than 300 species have already disappeared from Finland, and every ninth species is threatened. The advance of biodiversity loss, together with climate change, endangers human health and well-being. The disappearance of biotopes and species hurts ecosystems and weakens natural cycles. Food production becomes more difficult, which creates environmental refugees and disrupts the world economy. Humanity’s options for the future are narrowing.

Why is diversity decreasing?

The loss of biodiversity mainly results from the fact that people have taken most of our planet's land surface into use and have altered it heavily. Natural plants and animals have had to make way for agricultural plants and domestic animals. In addition, fish stocks and other natural bounty is utilised in a non-sustainable manner. Nature is also burdened by emissions. Finland is not absent from these developments.

Äestetty hakkuu
Intensive land use is the most significant reason for the reduction of natural diversity. © Rku Lumiaro

The main reason for the loss of diversity is the use of land – also here in Finland – primarily forestry and changes in agriculture. Much nature is also displaced by construction. Roads and other infrastructure split up natural areas, and dams prevent the movement of migratory fish. Ecosystems are altered by eutrophication and climate change. An additional threat comes from invasive species which usurp the living space of native species.

A change in direction is possible

Halting diversity loss in Europe by 2030 is a common goal of the member states of the European Union. The task requires plenty of work, but it is attainable. It is possible to utilise nature sustainably and to treat it as an ally and not as an adversary or competitor. In Finland the task is made easier by the fact that natural diversity and the threats that it faces are well known. The state of nature and changes taking place in it are closely monitored, using new technology. Valuable nature areas have been surveyed, and plans have been drafted for caring for waterways. Finland's evaluation of threatened species is one of the most extensive in the world. This information creates preconditions for appropriate and effective action.

Can the direction of development be turned?

Fighting diversity loss requires the same kind of extensive change in society that is required by fighting climate change. Natural diversity needs to be considered in all plans and projects. If harm to nature cannot be avoided, the damage is compensated by restoring or protecting similar nature areas in other locations Some nature areas need to be left completely alone. Under the biodiversity strategy of the European Union, 30 percent of the surface areas of all living environments must be protected. Finland still has a way to go to reach this goal.

Ennallistettua metsää
Restored commercial forest © Riku Lumiaro

About 14 percent of Finland's land area is now under protection, and the focus of protection is on land in the north where trees are sparse or non-existent. About 11 percent of sea surface area is under protection. The good news is that changes are taking place in the way of thinking. The importance of natural diversity is understood, and many are also ready to change and to develop the way they operate. However, much faster progress is needed if biodiversity loss is to be stopped.


Finnish Environment Institute (Syke)