Complete Guide to Environmental Science and its Components

Environmental science is the unified study of the Earth’s natural processes, and the dynamic interplay between these processes and the complex societal needs of humankind. It is an inherently multidisciplinary field, one that is grounded in biology, chemistry, and physics, but that also encompasses quantitative and behavioral sciences, as well as aspects of anthropology, climatology, geology, meteorology, mineralogy, oceanography, and zoology. By developing a more complete, holistic understanding of the Earth’s interdependent systems, its inhabitants, and how these interact with one another, environmental science aims to generate sustainable strategies for better managing our planet’s natural resources, preserving its vital ecological systems, and enhancing the long-term prospects for human prosperity.

Explaining Environmental Science

Biology, chemistry, and physics approach knowledge of the physical world from different perspectives, using different tools and methods to answer elemental questions about reality. And yet, they all coalesce around the same basic reality, and in combination create a deeper understanding of our world. Similarly, there are discrete scientific fields devoted to the study of rocks and soil (geology, mineralogy, petrology), water (oceanography, hydrology), weather (meteorology and climatology), plant and animal life (botany, zoology, forestry), and many other aspects of our planet. But, there is a point where all of the accumulated knowledge from these disciplines intersects with the scientific study of humankind. That convergence represents the foundation of environmental science.

The Environmental Literacy Council is a non-profit organization that provides a broad range of cross-disciplinary resources for teachers, students, policymakers, and the public in the area of Environmental Science.

The Department of Environmental Science at Iowa State University maintains an online resource guide about the field of Environmental Science.

The United Nations has an online resource that documents the evolution of the environmental movement and of Environmental Science worldwide.

The Occupational Information Network has an overview of the various aspects of Environmental Science at O*NET online.

Fields Related to Environmental Science

Another useful way to conceptualize environmental science is to contrast it with three similar fields that exist in close proximity to environmental science.

  • Ecology

    While often used interchangeably with environmental science, ecology is generally tailored to the study of living organisms and their interactions with features of their immediate environment. Environmental science includes ecology, but takes a more expansive, wide-angle view of the ways in which natural processes impact and are impacted by humankind. Environmental science is also more explicitly directed toward addressing problems like climate change, pollution, and sustainability.

  • Environmental Studies

    The social, behavioral, and political facets of environmental policy are the focal points in environmental studies. In contrast to environmental science, which is rooted in quantitative analysis and scientific data, environmental studies is more strongly oriented toward the psychology, sociology, and political science of environmental issues.

  • Environmental Engineering

    Environmental engineering is a branch of engineering that aims to devise practical solutions to the problems explored by environmental scientists. Environmental scientists generate data and experimental conclusions that environmental engineers can then act on, designing public works projects and infrastructure enhancements that make better use of natural resources and reduce damage to the environment. For example, based on new findings in the field of environmental science, environmental engineers may design better industrial and municipal water treatment facilities, more efficient recycling plants, and other innovations that minimize pollution and improve the overall health of the environment.

The Ecological Society of America is a non-profit scientific organization dedicated to promoting ecological and environmental science awareness and research.

The College of Agriculture & Life Sciences at the University of Wisconsin-Madison has a resource that delineates the differences between Environmental Science and Ecology.

The University of Oregon’s Environmental Studies Program has an extensive FAQ section about Environmental Science and Environmental Studies.

Components of Environmental Science

In practice, environmental science relies on teams of individuals with technical skills and proficiencies in a broad range of specialized areas, including statistical modeling, computer programming, and data analytics. Environmental science also has a symbiotic relationship with a number of other scientific specializations that are in various ways integral to the scientific study of the environment. These are some of the more prominent fields that are components of environmental science:

  • Atmospheric Sciences

    This is an umbrella term for a cluster of distinct fields that are concerned with the Earth’s atmosphere, including climatology, meteorology, and atmospheric chemistry and physics.

  • Environmental Chemistry

    Environmental chemists study the chemical and biochemical processes in the natural world, and the impacts of human activity on those processes. This includes the molecular chemistry of air, water, and soil, as well as the integrated chemistry of entire ecosystems.

  • Forestry and Agricultural Sciences

    These branches of the natural sciences focus on management and sustainability issues in farming, agriculture, national parks, wetlands, and wildlife habitats. Biodiversity, soil health, waste and pollution mitigation, botany, horticulture, and elements of food and health sciences are concerns among forestry and agricultural science specialists.

  • Geosciences

    The geosciences, which include geology, geography, geodesy, volcanology, mineralogy, geophysics, geochemistry, and geographical information science, are essentially Earth sciences. The geosciences overlap with atmospheric and oceanographic sciences, but tend to focus on exploring terrestrial features, from volcanoes and mineral formations, to magnetic fields and plate tectonics.

  • Oceanography and Marine Sciences

    In the simplest terms, oceanography is the study of our oceans, which comprise the largest ecosystem on our planet. In combination with the marine sciences, particularly marine biology, and several other subfields concerned with the ecology and geology of marine environments, oceanography and the study of other water resources makes up another key component of environmental science.

The Environmental Protection Agency is the federal agency created in 1970 to enforce environmental regulations enacted by Congress. Its website include sections on issues in environmental protection, the science and technology associated with environmental protection, and the laws and regulations that pertain to environmental protection.

The American Water Works Association is a nonprofit, scientific and educational organization dedicated to promoting education, awareness, and sustainability about water resources.

The Society for Conservation Biology is an international organization that serves resource managers, educators, government and private conservation workers, and students interested in the conservation and study of biological diversity.

The American Geosciences Institute is a non-profit organization that serves as a hub for geoscientific and professional associations associated with geology, geophysics, and other Earth sciences.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has a fact sheet on “Choosing a Career in Atmospheric Science.”

Sustainability and the Green Economy

The political and cultural conversation surrounding environmental science, environmental studies, and environmental engineering has largely taken root in “green” initiatives and the move toward sustainability. It’s a movement that encompasses far ranging issues like climate change, pollution, wildlife preservation, renewable energy, recycling, and natural resource conservation. There are a growing number of companies, government agencies, community groups, and private foundations promoting green educational and awareness initiatives, and developing and marketing green products and services informed by environmental science. This has helped galvanize a sector of the economy devoted to green technologies and innovations, from sustainable agriculture to alternative energy farms, and it has created a demand for college and university programs devoted to environmental science education.

The Association for Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education is a non-profit dedicated to sustainability innovation in higher education.

The Natural Resource Defense Council is a non-profit environmental advocacy organization that partners with businesses, elected leaders, and community groups to promote sustainability.

The World Business Council for Sustainable Development is a CEO-led organization committed to sustainability issues. It maintains a toolbox with strategies for promoting sustainability.

Careers in Environmental Science

Environmental scientists and others with training in environmental science can typically work in the field or in the lab, for government agencies or private companies, and at the local, state, federal, or international level. These jobs can include everything from collecting data, to directing and performing research projects; from developing innovative solutions to environmental problems, to informing the public about various environmental issues. In addition to environmental scientists, there are climate analysts, environmental chemists, environmental compliance inspectors, environmental health specialists, environmental restoration planners, industrial ecologists, soil and water conservationists, and many other job titles associated with a career in environmental science. The list below highlights some of the other jobs that commonly fall under the broad umbrella of environmental science:

  • Agricultural Scientist
  • Air And Water Quality Manager
  • Biochemist
  • Conservation Systems Analyst
  • Climate Analyst
  • Environmental Analyst
  • Environmental Chemist
  • Environmental Compliance Inspector
  • Environmental Consultant
  • Environmental Engineer
  • Environmental Health Specialist
  • Environmental Lawyer
  • Environmental Restoration Planner
  • Forest Ranger/Forester
  • Geographer
  • Geologist
  • Geophysicist
  • Hazardous Waste Manager
  • Horticulturist
  • Hydrologist
  • Industrial Ecologist
  • Natural Resource Specialist
  • Oceanographer
  • Park Ranger
  • Resource Economist
  • Seismologist
  • Urban and Regional Planner
  • Water Conservationist
  • Wildlife Manager

The University of North Carolina Wilmington’s Career Center maintains an online resource devoted to Environmental Science education and careers.

The Environmental Science, Policy, and Management Department at the University of California-Berkeley maintains a student resources and careers section about Environmental Science on its website.  

The Environmental Science Department at the University of Wisconsin at Green Bay maintains a career resource guide titled “What Can You Do With This Major?”

The Association for Environmental Studies and Sciences is an independent faculty-and-student-based professional association in higher education, designed to serve the needs of environmental scholars and scientists.

Yale University’s School of Forestry & Environmental Studies maintains an extensive resource of professional associations in all areas of environmental science, from Environmental Education, Journalism, and Law, to Industrial and Social Ecology.

The U.S. Department of Energy maintains an online resource for those interested in pursuing careers in clean energy research and engineering, and other areas in Environmental Science.

How to Become an Environmental Scientist

  • Pursue an undergraduate degree. Most entry-level positions in environmental science either require a bachelor’s degree or advantage those who have completed or are in the process of completing a four-year undergraduate program. A bachelor’s degree in Environmental Science, Environmental Studies, or a related discipline in the earth and/or life sciences can be a good starting point. But, any undergraduate degree that includes a strong grounding in one of the major sciences, including biology, chemistry, and physics, is also generally sufficient for employers looking for field analysts, research assistants, and laboratory technicians.
  • Seek out internships and get involved in student organizations. There are a growing number of opportunities and organizations for undergraduate students aiming to pursue a career in environmental science. Often, these organizations, some of which are listed under “Student Resources” below, can serve as a gateway to internship opportunities. Colleges and universities with Environmental Science and Environmental Studies departments are also a good place to look for opportunities to gain research and other types of experience in the field.
  • Earn a master’s degree or graduate certificate in the field. Those looking to advance their career in environmental science may opt for graduate training of some kind. A Master of Science in Environmental Science is one way to accomplish this. There are also graduate certificate programs in environmental science and other related fields. And, there are other types of master’s-level programs that target specific areas within environmental science that may be appropriate, depending on the career path.
  • Pursue board certification. There are no general licensing requirements for environmental scientists mandated by the states or by the federal government, but professions that otherwise require board licensing and/or certification, such as nursing, medicine, and law, have the same requirements in the area of environmental science. For example, to practice environmental law, one must complete a law degree and pass a state bar exam. In addition, there are various credentials offered by professional organizations like the National Environmental Health Association and the American Academy of Environmental Engineers & Scientists that can be helpful for career advancement.
  • Complete a doctoral degree in order to teach or contribute research to the field. Environmental scientists who opt for a doctoral degree generally enroll in PhD programs in chemistry, biology, physics, or geology. A PhD may be required for college and university teaching positions, and for higher-level research in the field of environmental science.

Professional Associations

The National Environmental Health Association is a professional organization for those in the field of environmental health and protection. The organization provides credentialing for Registered Environmental Health Specialists and Registered Sanitarians.

The American Academy of Environmental Engineers & Scientists is a non-profit organization serving Environmental Engineering and Environmental Science professionals. It also offers Board Certified Environmental Engineering certification.

The National Association of Environmental Professionals is a member group for environmental professionals dedicated to environmental planning, research and management, and to maintaining a network for the exchange of information among colleagues in industry, government, academia, and the private sector.

The Royal Society of Chemistry publishes Energy & Environmental Science, an international journal that presents research in the various areas of Environmental Science.

About the Author : Matt Ashare is a writer with 25 years of experience in publishing. He was an editor at the Boston Phoenix and a contributor to other publications, including Rolling Stone, Spin, and the Village Voice. He now teaches journalism at Randolph College, and occasionally writes a column for the Central Virginia weekly The Burg.