What are the Environmental Sciences?
In a nutshell, Environmental Science is the study of the past, present, and potential future environmental conditions on Earth. In this context, “environment” refers to the natural world, primarily the biosphere and atmosphere of our planet. I.e., our personal environment that we depend on for survival. So, Environmental Science involves integrating a plethora of fields to understand the complexities of the world around us and how we interact with it.
That last part, about interaction between us and the environment, is especially important these days. Our actions as a species have actually begun to change the environment in many ways. So much so, that more often than not it causes ourselves significant harm. Environmental Science tries to identify and mitigate these negative effects we have on the environment in order to keep the planet and our species healthy and sustainable.
Biology, chemistry, ecology, and geoscience are some of the main scientific fields used to study the natural world and the effects we have on it. But Environmental Science doesn't just evaluate the natural world; it then relates findings to society. It works at evaluating alternative energy sources and actively determining mitigation methods for pollution or effects of climate change. New policies, regulations, and treaties are created based on scientific findings.
Butterflies and Dominoes: The Scope of Environmental Science
Environmental Science covers everything from local micro-systems to the global atmospheric climate. The idea of the butterfly effect really takes root in reality given how the smallest events in the smallest systems can propagate throughout their surroundings. As they cause a domino effect, they can amplify surprising amounts. They can result in unexpectedly severe consequences from what we may have thought were insignificant actions.
Environmental Science might focus specifically on a local ecosystem and how all its components interact with one another. Or, it may evaluate how each local system interacts to form the components of the entire planet's environment. The following case study shows the complex interactions that occur between all of the different components of a medium sized ecosystem. It demonstrates the far reaching effects that one seemingly small change can have on the entire system.
A Case Study of Unforeseen Interactions
A famous example of revealing the environmental intricacies at play in the US is the removal and subsequent reintroduction of the grey wolf from Yellowstone National Park. In the early 1900's, wolves were hunted essentially to extinction within the park by ranchers wanting to protect their livestock. The absence of the wolves changed the entire ecosystem for the worse.
Elk populations within the park grew once their primary predator wasn't around. The larger numbers of elk were also able to graze more heavily, destroying many important plants in the park. These plants provided shelter for bird life, and food for beavers.
With little plant shelter available, the birds left and insect populations were left uncontrolled. The decrease in beaver population from lack of food led to changes in the entire geography of the park. Their dams had controlled stream hydrology and runoff, recharging the water table and providing cold shaded water for fish. Without the beavers, water supply faltered and fish populations decreased.
Fortunately, the wolves were reintroduced to the park in 1995 and most of these effects reversed and the system rebounded to its previous state. Now imagine this wolf example, but with a current rate of 100 to 1,000 species per million per year lost around the globe due to human actions.
What happened to Yellowstone is essentially happening to the world ecosystem, only without replacing the majority of what was lost. And species loss is only the tip of the slowly melting iceberg.
The Rise of Environmental Science
Looking at the large effects of small changes in local ecosystems above, it's easy to see how over 7 billion people can have a huge effect on the entire planet. Even the smallest actions on an individual level add up when there are so many humans doing them. This means the rise of environmental science is really due to the rise of human population numbers and technological advances having unforeseen side effects.
It's Always Been a Problem, But a Smaller One
Pre-industrial revolution, the world population grew steadily but slowly for about 50,000 years, only reaching a billion at about the year 1800 AD. Some environmental problems had happened during this time, but were all fairly localized.
The Greenland Norse failed to adapt to their newly conquered but very environmentally different land, leading to their downfall. The Easter Islanders overused their resources to the point of destroying the entire ecosystem and society. But throughout history the mistreatment of the environment was typically only the mistreatment of a small part of it. Not the entire planet.
Things Picked up Speed
This changed when the Industrial Revolution hit in the late 1700's. During the next 200 years or so leading up to today, population then grew by over 600% of this 1800 AD reference, reaching the current number of about 7.5 billion. Environmental Science wasn't a big field before the revolution. We didn't use so many resources that we had to worry if there were enough of them or that the waste couldn't be reabsorbed by the environment. And they didn't have the same widespread harmful effects as modern production methods, byproducts, and waste.
But then, the advent of machinery, large factories, and mass production contributed to increased fuel consumption. Increased fuel consumption (when from unclean sources like wood, coal, and fossil fuels of the time) meant more pollution into the environment. Advances in standards of living then led to higher populations of people using these polluting fuels in their new machines and products.
The Start of Policy Changes
The first concerns of Environmental Science were for problems which were very obvious, or absolutely necessary for immediate survival. Farmers had to learn to properly rotate grazing animals and crops to avoid exhausting soil capabilities. And people in London absolutely could not ignore the polluting effects of factories and cars with events like the Great Smog of London that killed thousands of people in December of 1952. This horrific event specifically lead to the implementation of the Clean Air Act in 1956 to force industrial, commercial, and residential sectors to improve power generation methods. Cleaner fuels and more efficient machinery were required to reduce emissions in the dense urban area.
Similarly, in the mid 1900's, the hole in the Ozone layer was such a drastic and sudden event that the entire world immediately took notice and began researching it. This quickly led to concluding that the hole would be very harmful, and that CFC's were to blame. The Montreal Protocol was then implemented in 1987. Since, the hole has begun to recover.
But many environmental problems aren't as in-your-face as these, as we saw with the wolves example. It's also difficult for people to accept that we can cause dramatic effects on not just one city or local area, but the entire planet. The challenge now is to educate everyone on the effect our lifestyle has on the Earth, and understand that even if a problem is not obvious, that doesn't mean it's not a problem that needs to be addressed.
The Most Relevant Environmental Science Issues Today
Although it may sometimes feel, living in giant cities, as if we have successfully separated ourselves from nature, this is certainly not the case. We are situated in the natural world and entirely dependent on the environment for our basic needs.
Sometimes also known as global warming, climate change is the change in overall global climate (as opposed to local weather). Although climate change has essentially happened in cycles throughout Earth's history, this particular instance is specifically caused by humans.
It's effects with the biggest implications for our own well-being are the average increasing atmospheric and ocean temperatures, hence the term global warming. The below issues all stem from this primary characteristic.
Imagine how these changes to the environment affect our own food production, which still very much depends on the conditions of soil, water tables, climate, and pollinators.
Even off land, many food supplies are sourced from delicate ecosystems such as coral reefs and deep sea beds. Increasing atmospheric temperatures cause agriculturally viable land to become drier and less productive, decreasing food production. Changes to the temperature of the world's oceans (which subsequently cause changes to the chemistry) cause coral reefs to die, leading to shortages of fish stocks.
Rising atmospheric temperatures also cause increased severity of natural disasters. As oceans warm up, tropical storms are more powerful and sea level rises, causing further damage to human populations and pushing them away from coasts.
Hotter, drier summers also cause increased frequency and severity of forest fires and even landslides. Droughts from hot temperatures can be followed by severe storms, causing the overly dry soil to collapse in more dramatic and devastating ways.
Conflict and Immigration
Immigration then increases as people flee low-lying coastal areas and leave increasingly arid and agriculturally unproductive areas in favor of those which provide more hospitable conditions. Disputes also arise over scarce resources, such as oil, land, and water. We are already seeing the effects of increased conflict and immigration worldwide which will only worsen as these factor's contribute more and more.
Deforestation has a deep relationship with each of the above factors. Increased population leads to increased need for lumber as well as land for various purposes. But forests are carbon sinks which absorb carbon, meaning that less forests leads to more carbon in the atmosphere (and higher resulting temperatures).
Dark fauna also absorb light, meaning that deforestation causes lighter colored land and buildings to reflect more light into the atmosphere, further increasing temperature. Slash-and-burn agricultural methods also have negative long-term effects on soil quality and biodiversity.
Thinking About Studying Environmental Science?
For someone who wants to help fix the above problems, a degree in Environmental Science is a great place to start. The field is diverse and very interdisciplinary, so you need to be prepared for a wide range of material. But with it comes many open doors to opportunities in the workplace, as well as ways to contribute to the betterment and longevity of our species.
Environmental Science degrees are increasingly available at universities around the world, with hundreds available in the US alone. More advanced degrees such as those from master's programs might focus on particular facets of the field. Bachelor's programs on the other hand will usually focus on a foundation of basic physical sciences that branches out into a wide array of study areas
More Than Just a Piece of Paper
Sure, earning a degree helps you grow your own mastery of the subject and get a job. But it also allows you to contribute to the current pool of knowledge in the subject. Most universities, particularly in the US, are research institutions that both teach new students old knowledge as well as discover new knowledge. Students in the advanced stages of degrees contribute to these discoveries by assisting with research or conducting their own thesis and research projects.
Currently, universities conduct research to answer certain questions. The big questions include; in what ways is the environment changing? How much and how quickly is it changing? Which aspects are specifically due to human actions? How can we reduce negative effects? What can we do to adapt to inevitable changes?
But each student contributing to research and advancement through a degree will likely help answer a much more niche question. Some thing like “How does this specific molecule change under temperature fluctuation of 1 degree in the presence of another specific molecule?” Or something equally specific. While answering these small questions may not feel like contributing huge strides to Environmental Science advancement, they are important small steps that add up over time.
Types of Environmental Science Degrees
As with practically any scientific or technical degree, an associates will not typically be sufficient. A bachelor's is the lowest level you should expect to complete, possibly followed by a master's or doctorate. The final level you reach will depend on what you plan to do with the degree.
Fields like academia, scientific research, and advanced scientist positions probably need more than a bachelor's. If you're not sure about what you want to do or whether your dream job will require a higher degree, you can try asking advisors at your school, or checking out job boards for that position. Some companies and organizations will even accept entry level employees with a bachelor's with the plan to fund their higher education in the future. This gives the organization the ability to tailor your education to their specific needs, making you more valuable for their field.
As far as subject focuses, Environmental Science degrees come in many shapes and sizes. Specializations are often in scientific areas as the name might suggest. Work in these focus areas consists of lab testing, collecting field samples, or using data collected by others to test scientific theories relating to the environment.
Still in the scientific area but getting more into other fields might be a degree focusing on technology. The most innovative steps towards decreasing our effects on the environment are results of progress in the field of technology. Environmental scientists help design new clean energy technology, or tech to help clean messes already in the environment.
Political and Economic
Branching away from the scientific, you find degrees focused on applying Environmental Science to political and economic sectors. Policy making is a huge endeavor that aims to make Environmental Science part of everyday life. Policies aim to put consistent requirements in place for citizens, companies, governments, and organizations of all kinds. The regulations enforce standards that environmental scientists have determined to be optimally beneficial to the environment.
Some degrees may also turn to what are often the most desperate situations. Humanitarian aid is intricately related to environmental problems because they often lead to natural disasters. There is also a distinct relationship between undeveloped or developing countries and environmental problems/natural disasters. These less developed countries both tend to experience more negative consequences of global environmental changes, as well as have less capabilities to deal with those effects, leading to them requiring assistance.
By Development Level
For example, many island countries are less developed. Rising sea levels and intensified storms caused by climate change wreak havoc on the islands. But their poor economic status means it is difficult to repair, migrate, or reform in response. Thus, Environmental Science can pair with development economics to help find ways to assist these areas of the world.
Similarly, regardless of economic or development status, all regions of the world have their own environmental problems. A degree in Environmental Science might focus on the weather patterns, resource deficiencies, or pollution problems associated with a particular region. Some location specific areas of focus might include large ocean-driven storms like El Niño, sea level rise in low laying areas, deforestation of rain forests, or melting of tundra and ice sheets.
Within all of these areas is the opportunity to focus your degree on further teaching, research, and education. This might involve research and peer reviewed publications at a higher learning institution. Or, it could involve obtaining a degree aimed at certifying you to teach Environmental Science as a professor or high school teacher.
Courses You Can Expect to Take
The core areas focus first on the physical and biological sciences. A foundation in geosciences and geology is helpful for understanding the systems at play on the planet which affect the environment. The water cycle and carbon cycle are the most important in this regard, as climate change is driven by interactions between water and carbon dioxide.
Chemistry and physics are the underlying factors that help us identify and predict the exact changes that are happening. And in the end, biology is what we really care about. The Earth itself has been both a ball of ice and a sweltering ice-free rock in the past, and it was fine. But those types of changes would be very detrimental to our own present and future well-being if they happened now.
Beyond the basics, courses start getting into the specifics of the most relevant environmental problems of today. Or, alternatively, into the historical problems that led to them. You could expect to take various forms of environmental history, economics, politics, and various forms of environmental Earth Sciences.
Because Environmental Science studies the human interactions with the environment, it can also involve some human behavioral science. Courses that integrate Environmental Science with economic and social aspects might be considered “Environmental Studies.” These courses could include behavioral economics or cultural analysis in the face of environmental changes.
What Careers can an Environmental Science Degree Lead to?
As we saw above, a degree in Environmental Science can be extremely interdisciplinary and versatile. This can lead to a great amount of flexibility in the application of the degree to various areas of the workforce.
The top career paths are probably environmental scientist, engineer, and politician. Scientists in the field can work for a number of organizations, from small private firms to large corporations to government. Government positions are increasingly popular as the majority of the world recognizes the consequences of climate change and the necessity of environmental scientists to combat it. Environmental scientists back up the policies, treaties, and other actions taken by governments in the face of climate change.
The one's actually making those changes in government are sometimes environmental scientists directly applying their knowledge to policy-making. As of 2018, record numbers of people with scientific backgrounds are running for political office. As scientific issues such as climate change and ever-increasing technological advances continue to have profound effects on the world, so our governments should be held to scientific standards in creating related laws. Besides political office, careers as lawyers and consultants can have more indirect influence on the creation of these laws.
Environmental Science technicians are also commonly employed by the government as well as companies. They help with compliance and safety issues by evaluating the standards of activities with potential environmental impacts. Pollution, waste treatment, hazardous materials, and environmental safety issues that affect public health are the main areas of specialization for these technicians.
Is Environmental Science in Demand?
The Bureau of Labor Statistics has some good news. It projects a growth of about 11% in employment for environmental scientists and specialists though 2026. That rate is considered high, and some state growth rates are even significantly higher.
State and local governments are especially increasing their rates of employment for developing scientifically sound policies and regulations. They also use scientists to help ensure the enforcement of these legislative measures. Another surprising sector feeling a push for environmental scientists is the energy industry. And not only the sustainable and renewable energy sectors, but also in companies of non-renewables like oil and gas.
Companies such as these need environmental scientists to help them maintain standards put in place by government regulations. They also aim to develop new technologies to keep up with changing demands. Many traditionally oil and gas companies are beginning to invest in clean energy like solar, wind, and hydroelectric to prepare for what is (hopefully) an inevitable switch to primarily renewable energy sources.
What is an Average Salary for an Environmental Scientist?
80% of all salaries for environmental scientists in the US fell between about 40,000 and 122,000 dollars in 2017. The median wage in this range was about 69,000 dollars. Those jobs on the higher end of the pay spectrum are primarily for physical scientists and those employed by the federal government.
Government positions are the most common and generally well-paid, however local and state governments will not pay as much as the federal positions. At the local and state level, you can expect to make around the median of 69,000 dollars.
However, experience level of course comes into play for the payscale. You are more likely to be below the median when first starting out, potentially between 40,000 and 50,000 dollars per year. Gaining experience, moving up the ladder in a company, or moving to different sectors can lead to increased earnings over time.
Certain locations can give you a leg up in finding a job with the most optimal pay. The states with the highest projected growth for jobs in Environmental Science are California, Florida, Texas, New York, Colorado, and Washington. Find a full ranking with details about projections and regional variations in employment patterns here.
What is the Future of Environmental Science?
The current growth of environmental science is promising. We as a species are realizing that something needs to change. Environmental Science and all its applications will likely dominate scientific, political, economic, and energy sectors in the coming decades. If not, we risk suffering severe consequences fairly soon, within the next 50 to 100 years.
Environmental Science will also be a key aspect of transplanting populations onto other planets in the future. While this is at least decades, if not centuries or millennia away, it is still important to prepare. At some time or another humans will need to move on from this planet. And at that time we need to know how to cope on the next one. Knowing the effects human populations can have on terrestrial systems can help us prevent over-doing it in the future. It is also essential knowledge for any potential agriculture or even terraforming of other planetary bodies. The potential applications are literally astronomical.
Further Reading to Learn More
If you're interested in learning more about the intricacies and future developments in Environmental Science, check out these books:
Silent Spring by Rachel Carson
- First published in 1962, this book unveiled the subtle but detrimental environmental effects of untamed pesticide usage. It ultimately lead to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency.
Limits to Growth by Various Authors
- Followed by the sequel “Limits to Growth; a Thirty Year Update.” The authors of these books use computer simulations to show the effects of exponential population growth with a finite supply of resources.
Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed by Jared Diamond
- Diamond identifies four main causes of societal collapse in the past. Two of them, environmental changes and climate change, play huge roles in many collapses.
The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert
- This book puts the modern loss of species due to human actions into perspective. It by shows that current losses equal to the largest extinction event since the dinosaur-killing asteroid impact.
This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate by Naomi Klein
- A look into the relationship between economic systems and environmental problems.