Phosphorus, like many essential elements, such as carbon and oxygen, is vital to the survival of the planet. Like so many other substances on Earth, a lack of phosphorus would render this planet a completely different habitat. Why is the phosphorus cycle important to us? Phosphorus has a very different beginning than oxygen and carbon. Phosphorus is leached out of rocks called apatite and enters the life cycle in that way. It is a valuable source of fertilizer, although not more than its source originating as “guano” or bird droppings.
The phosphorus cycle on a small scale
Phosphorus is present in many living things, fauna and flora, forming a bond with ATP (adenosine triphosphate), where it plays a very important role in the use and storage of energy. Phosphate is also responsible for the proper reproduction of species by being the supporting agent for the replication of DNA and RNA, which is what makes each living thing unique, from the tiniest plankton to blue whales.
In a small-scale environment, the phosphate runoff is collected by the diatoms existing in the smallest bodies of water. This is digested by cladocerans, an algae-feeding form of zooplankton, which in turn will become food for minnows and similar hatchlings. As the new life grows, it will inevitably become food for larger fish, which in turn will be consumed by even larger fish—some to end up on your plate. Many eventually die, and their soft skeletons become recycled by bacteria and fungi. Because they do not absorb the phosphate, it is released it into our rivers and streams, where cycle recurs when the ion of phosphate is consumed once again by a diatom.
Phosphorus, along with carbon, oxygen, potassium and iron, is an element that will pass through the ecosystem time and time again in a process called “nutrient cycling.” Phosphorus is probably one of the most important of the elements that keep getting cycled through, as it is the one that DNA and RNA could not form without.
Autumn in temperate climates
When leaves start yellowing in preparation for winter, they fall to the ground and decompose with the assistance of microbes and fungi, eventually releasing this very important mineral into the soil. It will be transported by rainwater and snowmelt into small streams and ponds and further down into rivers, lakes and oceans, contributing to the never-ending cycle of phosphorus traces and supporting a pristine natural environment.
There are numerous islands in the Pacific Ocean, such as Nauru and Ocean Island, that have served as homes to millions of generations of birds. The rich phosphate deposits were mined for decades, leaving very little of the original island and devastating all other natural resources. Phosphate mining provided relatively well-paying work to the natives, many of whom were forcefully resettled to Ocean Island, or Banaba. However, both of these phosphate deposits have become mostly exhausted, and almost all the workers have returned to China and Tarawa or migrated to Fiji.
Fortunately, when people started observing rivers foaming up and lakes being choked by algae, scientists were already on the trail of what the consequences of overfertilization and the high concentration of phosphates in detergents would do. Alternate ways are now being developed to feed crops, and the practice of overfertilization is being reduced. Most detergents manufactured in the first half of the 21st century are now phosphate-free, allowing the streams and lakes to recover.