The Earth has a wide range of natural resources that are essential for our day-to-day life. As you can see from the Settlement section of this revision course, some natural resources such as water, soil and wood were very important for early settlements. Over time we have increasingly relied on these natural resources. For instance the Industrial Revolution only really occurred due to the harnessing of steam power, from burning coal to heat water.This was the beginning of huge increase in the use of the Earth's natural resources.
The cars that you and your parents drive rely on petrol, made from oil.
The big problem in the world is that the population is rapidly increasing; it reached 6 billion last year. All these people put pressure on the resources of the world, which in some cases are insufficient, and in some cases are rapidly running out. Consequently it is vitally important to try to conserve these resources, and find suitable others to replace or supplement them.
Renewable resources are ones that will never run out, either naturally or through good management.
Naturally re-occurring resources include the wind, waves, air and the sun. All of these things are naturally occurring and will never run out (or not until humans have long since died out!). They can all be used for human benefit and are becoming increasingly important in the search for alternative energy sources. However, recently, some of these have been affected by human actions, such as the burning of the rainforests polluting the atmosphere.
Some natural resources need some degree of management to allow them to be renewable. Forests are one good example of this. The Tropical Rainforests are being rapidly wiped out, and the natural vegetation destroyed in places like the Amazon rainforest. It has very little chance of growing back. However many countries do now have forestry schemes which include wide-scale replanting so that there are similar numbers of trees for future generations to use. These trees tend to be quick growing coniferous softwoods like fir and pine, rather than the slow growing deciduous hardwoods like mahogany and teak.
Non-renewable resources are ones that will eventually run out. They are described as being finite and can be easily divided into two groups. Fossil Fuels are the first group of non-renewable.
Fossil Fuels are the first group of non-renewable resources. These include oil, coal and natural gas, which will all run out in the future. Unfortunately humans have greatly increased their use of these fuels over the past 200 years, which has led to them potentially running out quite soon.
Although fossil fuels have been produced naturally, their formation takes millions of years, so there is no real chance of making any more. They all are the result of the decomposition of plants or animals, which over time have been compressed by sediments layered down on top of them.
We have not discovered all the coal, oil and natural gas deposits in the world, but they are becoming increasingly hard to find and then to exploit. The oil companies looking for new deposits spend millions of pounds every year, but it is a very difficult process.
There are many estimates for how long fossil fuels will last. The trouble is that we don't really know how much more we might find, or whether we will find more efficient was of using the fuel in the future.
Most oil reserves in the world will run out within the next 50 years. The one exception might be some of the oil-rich Arab states, which should be able to continue production for a further 50 years. However the decreasing availability of oil, as well as the continuing need for it may well see the price rising to a point where it is not economically viable to use it.
Coal reserves are expected to last over 300 years. This estimate has consistently increased over the past few years as more fuel-efficient methods of using coal have been introduced and better technology has allowed mines to go further underground. This trend may well continue with future developments.
Natural gas is becoming increasingly used as an alternative fuel to coal or oil, and the latest estimates suggest that there is enough remaining for approximately another 125 years. This estimate may of course decrease if the increase in its use continues
The fact that these natural resources are running out has meant that alternative forms of energy are having to be developed. The two most widely used are nuclear energy and hydro-electric power. Although nuclear energy does rely on a finite natural resource (uranium, plutonium or other similar minerals), it uses so little that there is very little chance of the reserves running out.
The other group of non-renewable resources are minerals. Theses include valuable stones such as diamonds, but more importantly deposits of iron ore (used in the steel making process) and bauxite (used in aluminium manufacture). Again these resources are finite and have been extensively used over the past 200 years.