What Is Environmental Science?

An environmental scientist records animal tracking data in the Livingstone Range, Alberta.
Andrew Querner / Getty Images

Environmental science is the study of the interactions between the physical, chemical, and biological components of nature. As such, it is a multidisciplinary science: it involves a number of disciplines like geology, hydrology, soil sciences, plant physiology, and ecology. Environmental scientists may have training in more than one discipline; for example, a geochemist has expertise in both geology and chemistry. Most often, the multidisciplinary nature of environmental scientists’ work comes from collaborations they foster with other scientists from complementary research fields.

A Problem-Solving Science

Environmental scientists rarely just study natural systems, but instead usually work towards solving problems stemming from our interactions with the environment. Normally the basic approach taken by environmental scientists first involves using data to detect a problem and evaluate its extent. Solutions to the issue are then designed and implemented. Finally, monitoring is done to determine whether the problem was fixed. Some examples of the types of projects environmental scientists may be involved with include:

  • Coordinating cleanup efforts at an abandoned oil refinery labeled as a Superfund site, determining the extent of the pollution problem and putting together a restoration plan.
  • Forecasting the effects of global climate change and sea level rise on a coastal bay system, and assisting with finding solutions to limit damages on coastal wetlands, shoreline property, and public infrastructure.
  • Consulting with a construction team to help them with minimizing sediment pollution coming from the site of a future grocery store.
  • Assisting the managers of a state government’s fleet of vehicles with taking steps to reduce carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Designing a restoration plan to bring acreage of oak savanna in the proper ecological state to host the endangered Karner blue butterfly and its host plant, the blue lupine.

A Quantitative Science

To evaluate the condition of a field site, the health of an animal population, or the quality of a stream most scientific approaches require extensive data collection. That data then needs to be summarized with a suite of descriptive statistics, then used to verify if a particular hypothesis is supported or not. This type of hypothesis testing requires complex statistical tools. Trained statisticians are often part of large research teams to assist with complicated statistical models.

Other types of models are often used by environmental scientists. For example, hydrological models help understand groundwater flow and the spread of spilled pollutants, and spatial models implemented in a geographical information system (GIS) will help track deforestation and habitat fragmentation in remote areas.

An Education in Environmental Science

Whether it is a Bachelor of Arts (BA) or Bachelor of Science (BS), a university degree in environmental science can lead to a wide range of professional roles. Classes typically include earth science and biology courses, statistics, and core courses teaching sampling and analytical techniques specific to the environmental field. Students generally complete outdoor sampling exercises as well as inside laboratory work. Elective courses are usually available to provide students with the appropriate context surrounding environmental issues, including politics, economics, social sciences, and history.

Adequate university preparation for a career in environmental science can also take different paths. For example, a degree in chemistry, geology, or biology can provide a solid educational basis, followed by graduate studies in environmental science. Good grades in the basic sciences, some experience as an intern or summer technician, and positive letters of recommendation should allow motivated students to get into a Master’s program.

Environmental Science as a Career

Environmental science is practiced by people in a wide variety of sub-fields. Engineering firms employ environmental scientists to evaluate the condition of future project sites. Consulting companies can assist with remediation, a process where previously polluted soil or groundwater is cleaned up and restored to acceptable conditions. In industrial settings, environmental engineers use science to find solutions to limit the amount of polluting emissions and effluents. There are state and federal employees who monitor air, water, and soil quality to preserve human health.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts an 11% growth in environmental science positions between the years 2016 and 2026. The median salary was $69,400 in 2017.