An ecosystem (or ecological system) consists of all the organisms and the physical environment with which they interact.: 458 These biotic and abiotic components are linked together through nutrient cycles and energy flows. Energy enters the system through photosynthesis and is incorporated into plant tissue. By feeding on plants and on one another, animals play an important role in the movement of matter and energy through the system. They also influence the quantity of plant and microbial biomass present. By breaking down dead organic matter, decomposers release carbon back to the atmosphere and facilitate nutrient cycling by converting nutrients stored in dead biomass back to a form that can be readily used by plants and microbes.
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Ecosystems are controlled by external and internal factors. External factors such as climate, parent material which forms the soil and topography, control the overall structure of an ecosystem but are not themselves influenced by the ecosystem. Internal factors are controlled, for example, by decomposition, root competition, shading, disturbance, succession, and the types of species present. While the resource inputs are generally controlled by external processes, the availability of these resources within the ecosystem is controlled by internal factors. Therefore, internal factors not only control ecosystem processes but are also controlled by them.
Ecosystems are dynamic entities—they are subject to periodic disturbances and are always in the process of recovering from some past disturbance. The tendency of an ecosystem to remain close to its equilibrium state, despite that disturbance, is termed its resistance. The capacity of a system to absorb disturbance and reorganize while undergoing change so as to retain essentially the same function, structure, identity, and feedbacks is termed its ecological resilience. Ecosystems can be studied through a variety of approaches—theoretical studies, studies monitoring specific ecosystems over long periods of time, those that look at differences between ecosystems to elucidate how they work and direct manipulative experimentation. Biomes are general classes or categories of ecosystems. However, there is no clear distinction between biomes and ecosystems. Ecosystem classifications are specific kinds of ecological classifications that consider all four elements of the definition of ecosystems: a biotic component, an abiotic complex, the interactions between and within them, and the physical space they occupy.
Ecosystems provide a variety of goods and services upon which people depend. Ecosystem goods include the "tangible, material products" of ecosystem processes such as water, food, fuel, construction material, and medicinal plants. Ecosystem services, on the other hand, are generally "improvements in the condition or location of things of value". These include things like the maintenance of hydrological cycles, cleaning air and water, the maintenance of oxygen in the atmosphere, crop pollination and even things like beauty, inspiration and opportunities for research. Many ecosystems become degraded through human impacts, such as soil loss, air and water pollution, habitat fragmentation, water diversion, fire suppression, and introduced species and invasive species. These threats can lead to abrupt transformation of the ecosystem or to gradual disruption of biotic processes and degradation of abiotic conditions of the ecosystem. Once the original ecosystem has lost its defining features, it is considered "collapsed". Ecosystem restoration is thought to contribute to all 17 Sustainable Development Goals.