Environmental Science

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Environmental science is an expression encompassing the wide range of scientific disciplines that need to be brought together to understand and manage the natural environment and the many interactions among physical, chemical, and biological components. Environmental Science provides an integrated, quantitative, and interdisciplinary approach to the study of environmental systems.  Individuals may operate as Environmental scientists or a group of scientists may work together pooling their individual skills. The most common model for the delivery of Environmental science is through the work of an individual scientist or small team drawing on the peer-reviewed, published work of many other scientists throughout the world.


Earth from Outer Space

Blue Marble composite images generated by NASA in 2001 (left) and 2002 (right).


The role of environmental science


The work of Environmental Science describes the environment, interprets the impact of human actions (anthropogenic effects) on terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems, and develops 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. 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, and 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.




Atmospheric sciences examine the 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 analyse the dynamics of biological populations and some aspect of their environment. These studies might 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 that are the food of the endangered amphibian.


Geoscience includes environmental geology, environmental soil science, volcanic phenomena and evolution of the Earth's crust. In some classification systems it can also embrace hydrology including oceanography.


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.


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 Environment Agency (EA), formed in 1996 is a 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). The Agency was set up under the Environment Act 1995 as an independent body and works closely with UK Government to enforce the regulations.




In common usage, "environmental science" and "ecology" are often used interchangeably, but technically, ecology refers only to the study of organisms and their interactions with each other and their environment. Ecology could be considered a subset of environmental science, which also could involve purely chemical, or public health issues (for example) ecologists would be unlikely to study. In practice, there is considerable overlap between the work of ecologists and other environmental scientists.


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Environmental Science



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