## Natural Resources

Category : UPSC

Natural Resources

1.           Life and Environment

• The composition of air is the result of life on Earth. In planets such as Venus and Mars, where no life is known to exist, the major component of the atmosphere is found to be carbon dioxide.
• In fact, carbon dioxide constitutes up to $95-97$per cent of the atmosphere on Venus and Mars. Eukaryotic cells and many prokaryotic cells need oxygen to break down glucose molecules and get energy for their activities.
• Despite this, the percentage of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere is a mere fraction of a percent because carbon dioxide is 'fixed’ in two ways : Green plants convert carbon dioxide into glucose in the presence of Sunlight and many marine animals use carbonates dissolved in sea-water to make their shells.
• We have talked of the atmosphere covering the Earth, like a blanket. We know that air is a bad conductor of heat. The atmosphere eeps the average temperature of the Earth fairly steady during the day and even during the course of the whole year. The atmosphere prevents the sudden increase in temperature during the daylight hours. And during the night, it slows down the escape of heat into outer space. Think of the moon, which is about the same distance from the Sun that the Earth is. Despite that, on the surface of the moon, with no atmosphere, the temperature ranges from -$190{}^\circ$C to $110{}^\circ$C.
• But why is water so necessary? And do all organisms require water? All cellular processes take place in a water medium. All the reactions that take place within our body and within the cells occur between substances that are dissolved in water. Substances are also transported from one part of the body to the other in a dissolved form.
• Hence, organisms need to maintain the level of water within their bodies in order to stay alive. Terrestrial life-forms require fresh water for this because their bodies cannot tolerate or get rid of the high amounts of dissolved salts in saline water. Thus, water sources need to be easily accessible for animals and plants to survive on land.
• So, we use the term water-pollution to cover the following effects :
• The addition of undesirable substances to water-bodies. These substances could be the fertilisers and pesticides used in farming or they could be poisonous substances, like mercury salts which are used by paper-industries. These could also be disease- causing organisms, like the bacteria which cause cholera.
• The removal of desirable substances from water-bodies. Dissolved oxygen is used by the animals and plants that live in water. Any change that reduces the amount of this dissolved oxygen would adversely affect these aquatic organisms. Other nutrients could also be depleted from the water bodies.
• A change in temperature. Aquatic organisms are used to a certain range of temperature in the water-body where they live, and a sudden marked change in this temperature would be dangerous for them or affect their breeding. The eggs and larvae of various animals are particularly susceptible to temperature changes.

2.           Mineral Riches in the Soil

• The Sun: The Sun heats up rocks during the day so that they expand. At night, these rocks cool down and contract. Since all parts of the rock do not expand and contract at the same rate, this results in the formation of cracks and ultimately the huge rocks break up into smaller pieces.
• Water: Water helps in the formation of soil in two ways. One, water could get into the cracks in the rocks formed due to uneven heating by the Sun. If this water later freezes, it would cause the cracks to widen. Can you think why this should be so? Two, flowing water wears away even hard rock over long periods of time. Fast flowing water often carries big and small particles of rock downstream. These rocks rub against other rocks and the resultant abrasion causes the rocks to wear down into smaller and smaller particles. The water then takes these particles along with it and deposits it further down its path. Soil is thus found in places far away from its parent-rock.
• Wind: In a process similar to the way in which water rubs against rocks and wears them down, strong winds also erode rocks down. The wind also carries sand from one place to the other like water does.
• Living organism: They also influence the formation of soil. The lichen that we read about earlier, also grows on the surface of rocks. While growing, they release certain substances that cause the rock surface to powder down and form a thin layer of soil. Other small plants like moss, are able to grow on this surface now and they cause the rock to break up further. The roots of big trees sometimes go into cracks in the rocks and as the roots grow bigger, the crack is forced bigger.

3.           The Nitrogen-Cycle

• Nitrogen gas makes up 78 per cent of our atmosphere and nitrogen is also a part of many molecules essential to life like proteins, nucleic acids (DNA and RNA) and some vitamins.
• Nitrogen is found in other biologically important compounds such as alkaloids and urea too.
• Nitrogen is thus an essential nutrient for all life-forms and life would be simple if all these life-forms could use the atmospheric nitrogen directly.
• However, other than a few forms of bacteria, life-forms are not able to convert the comparatively inert nitrogen molecule into forms like nitrates and nitrites which can be taken up and used to make the required molecules. These 'nitrogen-fixing’ bacteria may be free-living or be associated with some species of dicot plants. Most commonly, the nitrogen-fixing bacteria are found in the roots of legumes (generally the plants which give us pulses) in special structures called rootnodules.
• Other than these bacteria, the only other manner in which the nitrogen molecule is converted to nitrates and nitrites is by a physical process. During lightning, the high temperatures and pressures created in the air convert nitrogen into oxides of nitrogen. These oxides dissolve in water to give nitric and nitrous acids and fall on land along with rain. These are then utilised by various lifeforms.
• What happens to the nitrogen once it is converted into forms that can be taken up and used to make nitrogen-containing molecules? Plants generally take up nitrates and nitrites and convert them into amino acids which are used to make proteins. Some other biochemical pathways are used to make the other complex compounds containing nitrogen. These proteins and other complex compounds are subsequently consumed by animals.
• Once the animal or the plant dies, other bacteria in the soil convert the various compounds of nitrogen back into nitrates and nitrites. A different type of bacteria converts the nitrates and nitrites into elemental nitrogen.
• Thus, there is a nitrogen-cycle in nature in which nitrogen passes from its elemental form in the atmosphere into simple molecules in the soil and water, which get converted to more complex molecules in living beings and back again to the simple nitrogen molecule in the atmosphere.

4.           The Carbon-Cycle

• Carbon is found in various forms on the Earth. It occurs in the elemental form as diamonds and graphite. In the combined state, it is found as carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, as carbonate and hydrogencarbonate salts in various minerals, while all life- forms are based on carbon-containing molecules like proteins, carbohydrates, fats, nucleic acids and vitamins.
• Carbon is incorporated into life-forms through the basic process of photosynthesis which is performed in the presence of Sunlight by all life-forms that contain chlorophyll. This process converts carbon dioxide from the atmosphere or dissolved in water into glucose molecules. These glucose molecules are either converted into other substances or used to provide energy for the synthesis of other biologically important molecules.
• The utilisation of glucose to provide energy to living things involves the process of respiration in which oxygen may or may not be used to convert glucose back into carbon dioxide. This carbon dioxide then goes back into the atmosphere.
• Another process that adds to the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is the process of combustion where fuels are burnt to provide energy for various needs like heating, cooking, transportation and industrial processes.
• In fact, the percentage of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is said to have doubled since the industrial revolution when human beings started burning fossil fuels on a very large scale. Carbon, like water, is thus cycled repeatedly through different forms by the various physical and biological activities.

5.           The Oxygen-Cycle

• Oxygen is a very abundant element on our Earth. It is found in the elemental form in the atmosphere to the extent of 21 per cent. It also occurs extensively in the combined form in the Earth's crust as well as also in the air in the form of carbon dioxide.
• In the crust, it is found as the oxides of most metals and silicon, and also as carbonate, sulphate, nitrate and other minerals.
• It is also an essential component of most biological molecules like carbohydrates, proteins, nucleic acids and fats (or lipids).
• But when we talk of the oxygen-cycle, we are mainly referring to the cycle that maintains the levels of oxygen in the atmosphere. Oxygen from the atmosphere is used up in three processes, namely combustion, respiration and in the formation of oxides of nitrogen.
• Oxygen is returned to the atmosphere in only one major process, that is, photosynthesis. And this forms the broad outline of the oxygen-cycle in nature.
• Though we usually think of oxygen as being necessary to life in the process of respiration, it might be of interest to you to leam that some forms of life, especially bacteria, are poisoned by elemental oxygen. In fact, even the process of nitrogen-fixing by bacteria does not take place in the presence of oxygen.

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