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 encompasses a range of disciplines such as geology, hydrology, soil science, plant physiology, and ecology. Environmental scientists can be trained in more than one discipline. For example, a geochemist has expertise in geology and chemistry. Most of the time, the multidisciplinary nature of the work of environmental scientists is based on collaborations that they maintain with other scientists from complementary research areas.
A science of problem solving
Environmental scientists rarely only study natural systems, but usually work to solve problems that arise from our interactions with the environment. Usually, the basic approach taken by environmental scientists is first to use data to identify a problem and assess its magnitude. Solutions to the problem are then designed and implemented. Finally, it monitors whether the problem has been resolved. Some examples of the types of projects that environmental scientists can be involved in include:
- Coordinating the clean-up work in an abandoned oil refinery, which is marked as a Superfund site, determining the extent of the pollution problem and drawing up a remediation plan.
- Predict the impact of global climate change and sea level rise on a coastal bay system and assist in finding solutions to limit damage to coastal wetlands, coastal land and public infrastructure.
- Consultation with a construction team to minimize sediment pollution from the location of a future grocery store.
- Support of the managers of the vehicle fleet of a state government in measures to reduce carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions.
- Draft of a restoration plan to bring the acreage of the oak savannah into the correct ecological condition, in which the endangered blue Karner butterfly and its host plant, the blue lupine, are at home.
A quantitative science
To assess 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. This data must then be summarized with a series of descriptive statistics and then used to check whether or not a particular hypothesis is supported. This type of hypothesis testing requires complex statistical tools. Trained statisticians are often part of large research teams to help with complex statistical models.
Other types of models are commonly used by environmental scientists. For example, hydrological models help understand groundwater flow and the spread of spilled pollutants, and spatial models implemented in a geographic information system (GIS) help track deforestation and habitat fragmentation in remote areas.
An education in environmental science
Whether it’s a Bachelor of Arts (BA) or a Bachelor of Science (BS) degree, a university degree in environmental science can lead to a variety of professional roles. Classes typically include courses in geosciences and biology, statistics, and core courses that teach sampling and analysis techniques specific to the environmental field. Students typically complete outdoor sampling exercises as well as laboratory work. Electives are typically offered to provide students with the right context for environmental issues such as politics, economics, social sciences, and history.
Appropriate university preparation for a career in environmental science can also go different ways. For example, a degree in chemistry, geology, or biology can provide a solid educational foundation followed by a degree in environmental science. Good grades in the basic sciences, some experience as an intern or summer technician and positive letters of recommendation should enable motivated students to start a master’s degree.
Environmental science as a career
Environmental science is practiced by people in a variety of sub-areas. Engineering firms employ environmental scientists to assess the condition of future project locations. Consulting firms can help with remediation, a process that cleanses previously polluted soil or groundwater and brings it back to acceptable conditions. In industrial settings, environmental engineers use science to find solutions to limit the amount of pollutant emissions and wastewater. There are state and federal employees who monitor air, water, and soil quality to maintain human health.
The US Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that positions in environmental sciences will grow by 11% from 2016 to 2026. The median salary in 2017 was $ 69,400.