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Environmental science

Related subjects: Environment

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Environmental science is the study of interactions among physical, chemical, and biological components of the environment. Environmental Science provides an integrated, quantitative, and interdisciplinary approach to the study of environmental systems.

Environmental Scientists monitor the quality of the environment, interpret the impact of human actions on terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems, and develop strategies for restoring ecosystems. In addition, environmental scientists help planners develop and construct buildings, transportation corridors, and utilities that protect water resources and reflect efficient and beneficial land use. Due to the interdisciplinary nature of environmental science, teams of professionals commonly work together to conduct environmental research or to produce Environmental Impact Statements, as required by the U.S. National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) or under state laws. Other professional organizations engender work in environmental science and aid in communication among the diverse sciences.

Since most environmental issues deal with human activities, study of economics, law and social sciences are often applied in conjunction with Environmental Science.

Environmental science encompasses issues such as climate change, conservation, biodiversity, water quality, groundwater contamination , soil contamination, use of natural resources, waste management, sustainable development, disaster reduction, air pollution, and noise pollution.

While the environment has been studied for at least as long as there has been science, the recent interest in putting the pieces of understanding together to study environmental systems has come alive as a substantive, active field of scientific investigation starting in the 1960s and 1970s. This has been driven by the need for a large multi-disciplined team to analyze complex environmental problems, the arrival of substantive environmental laws requiring specific environmental protocols of investigation, and growing public awareness of a need for action in addressing environmental problems.

Career outlook

The magnitude and complexity of environmental problems are creating a growing need for scientists with rigorous, interdisciplinary training in environmental science. The majority of Environmental Scientists are employed in governmental positions, but the job market in the private sector is expected to see the most growth because of public policy demand for new rules and regulations. Job growth for environmental scientists should be strongest in private-sector consulting firms. Growth in employment of environmental scientists will be spurred largely by the increasing demands placed on the environment and water resources by population growth. Further demand should result from the need to comply with complex environmental laws and regulations, particularly those regarding ground-water decontamination, clean air, and flood control. Employment of environmental scientists is expected to increase by 25 percent between 2006 and 2016, much faster than the average for all occupations.


Environmental Scientist sampling water.

Atmospheric sciences examine the new phenomenology of the Earth's gaseous outer layer with emphasis upon interrelation to other systems. Atmospheric sciences comprises meteorological studies, greenhouse gas phenomena, atmospheric dispersion modeling of airborne contaminants, sound propagation phenomena related to noise pollution, and even light pollution.

Taking the example of the global warming phenomena, physicists create computer models of atmospheric circulation and infra-red radiation transmission, chemists examine the inventory of atmospheric chemicals and their reactions, biologists analyze the plant and animal contributions to carbon dioxide fluxes, and specialists such as meteorologists and oceanographers add additional breadth in understanding the atmospheric dynamics.

Ecology studies typically analyze the dynamics among an interrelated set of populations, or a population and some aspect of its environment. These studies could address endangered species, predator/prey interactions, habitat integrity, effects upon populations by environmental contaminants, or impact analysis of proposed land development upon species viability.

An interdisciplinary analysis of an ecological system which is being impacted by one or more stressors might include several related environmental science fields. For example one might examine an estuarine setting where a proposed industrial development could impact certain species by water pollution and air pollution. For this study biologists would describe the flora and fauna, chemists would analyze the transport of water pollutants to the marsh, physicists would calculate air pollution emissions and geologists would assist in understanding the marsh soils and bay muds.

Environmental chemistry is the study of chemical alterations in the environment. Principal areas of study include soil contamination and water pollution. The topics of analysis involve chemical degradation in the environment, multi-phase transport of chemicals (for example, evaporation of a solvent containing lake to yield solvent as an air pollutant), and chemical effects upon biota.

As an example study, consider the case of a leaking solvent tank which has entered the soil upgradient of a habitat of an endangered species of amphibian. Physicists would develop a computer model to understand the extent of soil contamination and subsurface transport of solvent, chemists would analyze the molecular bonding of the solvent to the specific soil type and biologists would study the impacts upon soil arthropods, plants and ultimately pond dwelling copepods who are the food of the endangered amphibian.

Geosciences include environmental geology, environmental soil science, hydrology, physical geography, climatology, and geomorphology. It may also embrace oceanography and other related fields.

As an example study of soils erosion, calculations would be made of surface runoff by soil scientists. Hydrologists would assist in examining sediment transport in overland flow. Physicists would contribute by assessing the changes in light transmission in the receiving waters. Biologists would analyze subsequent impacts to aquatic flora and fauna from increases in water turbidity.

Environmental assessment is the process of appraisal through which environmental protection and sustainable development may be considered. Environmental assessments typically involve collection of field data, this can be from stakeholders and the ambient environment, and serves to harmonize the linkages between the different branches of the environment and development.

Environmental microbiology is the study of the composition and physiology of microbial communities in the environment. The environment in this case means the soil, water, air and sediments covering the planet and can also include the animals and plants that inhabit these areas. Environmental microbiology also includes the study of microorganisms that exist in artificial environments such as bioreactors.

Environmental Biology is a sub-category of environmental science that focuses specifically on the effects of environmental conditions on biological systems. Although it incorporates aspects of environmental science such as geochemistry and ecology, studies are focused on individual organisms, their biological processes, and their genetics. In addition, environmental biology incorporates the ideas of global change and conservation biology to encourage the conservation of biodiversity. Tulane University of New Orleans offers a B.S. in Environmental Biology distinct from the B.S. in Environmental Science.

Regulations driving the studies

In the U.S. the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) of 1969 set forth requirements for analysis of major projects in terms of specific environmental criteria. Numerous state laws have echoed these mandates, applying the principles to local scale actions. The upshot has been an explosion of documentation and study of environmental consequences before the fact of development actions.

One can examine the specifics of environmental science by reading examples of Environmental Impact Statements prepared under NEPA such as: Wastewater treatment expansion options discharging into the San Diego/ Tiajuana Estuary, Expansion of the San Francisco International Airport, Development of the Houston, Metro Transportation system, Expansion of the metropolitan Boston MBTA transit system, and Construction of Interstate 66 through Arlington, Virginia.

In England and Wales the Environmental Agency (EA), (EA) formed in 1996 is the leading public body for protecting and improving the environment and enforces the regulations listed on the communities and local government site (formerly the office of the deputy prime minister) which help drive the study environmental science in the UK. The Agency was set up under the Environment Act 1995 as an independent body and works closely with UK Government to enforce the regulations.


"Environmental science" and "ecology" are different fields of study, although there is some overlap due to the multidisciplinary nature of environmental science. Ecology is the study of the interrelations of living organisms, whether at the population, community, or ecosystem level, and of the relationships between organisms and their environment. In contrast, environmental science is a broad area of study encompassing both biological and physical concepts including diverse areas such as geology, agronomy, meteorology, atmospheric chemistry, soil chemistry, water chemistry, systems modeling, and biological responses of systems to anthropogenic influence. In environmental science these areas of study are integrated and applied to address issues such as water quality, air quality, and soil quality).

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