Top 10 Environmental Science Research Topics
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The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that employment opportunities in environmental science will increase by 8% by 2030. Without a healthy environment, we wouldn't have fields like physics, economics, medicine, engineering, and education — because there wouldn't be any humans.
Over the last 40 years, the rate of global warming has been more than twice what it was between 1880 and 1981. As a result, we need people who can study the environment and ensure it's healthy for everyone, no matter where they live.
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Whether you're majoring in environmental science or hoping to write a compelling research paper, here are some of the most interesting environmental science topics you can pursue right now.
1. Climate Change
One thing is certain: We'll always have an environment. The question is whether or not it'll be an environment we can actually live in.
People researching climate change often face an uphill battle. You might be working on just one piece of the problem, such as operating remote eddy covariance towers, which measure how gases flow between the earth and sky. Or you might be tasked with a bigger problem, like getting people to agree climate change is, in fact, real.
Either way, there's plenty of opportunity in this field. That's especially true now that the U.S. has elected a science-focused presidential administration, which means there could soon be more climate change-related jobs at federal agencies.
2. Fire Ecology
Rising temperatures also means more wildfires. For decades, U.S. fire policy relied on stamping out any and all fires with minimal prescribed burns, but that's not the natural order of things, so now we're faced with a one-two punch: more dry fuels to burn, and hotter temperatures to burn them.
This is why fire ecology is such a blazing field right now. Fire ecologists work hard to understand how fires naturally burn, how they're burning currently, and how they might burn in the future. Even more importantly, these scientists are trying to understand how humans can live in harmony with fire.
3. Renewable Energy
Modern society was built on fossil fuels, and now it's coming back to haunt us through climate change. One of the biggest ways we can cope with this is by developing renewable energy technologies, such as solar, wind, and hydro energy. Although these new resources may be carbon-neutral, that doesn't mean they don't come at a cost.
For example, wind energy has a nasty tendency to whack birds out of the air, including endangered species. Hydro power equipment can block migratory fish like salmon from being able to reproduce, causing fisheries to suffer. Even solar power can block sunlight from reaching plants.
Developing a truly green future means identifying these potential threats and figuring out how to reduce or eliminate them.
4. Urban Ecology
We tend to think of distant mountains and forests when we think of the environment, but urban ecology is just as important as rural ecosystems. For example, did you know that different areas of the same city can be up to 20 degrees warmer during summer heat waves because of unequal urban planning and greenspace distribution?
As the world urbanizes, we need to study and understand the impacts of these changes to be able to live harmoniously with nature. For example, how much land should we designate as green space around streams that flow through subdivisions? How do we prevent road pollution from dumping on baby fish at the next big rainfall? Urban ecologists work to find solutions to these problems.
5. Remote Sensing and Geographic Information Systems
You can't physically travel to all of the places you wish to study. Even if you could, by the time you got there, the place would have already changed.
In order to study vast amounts of land, scientists are increasingly turning to tools like satellites and drones to monitor the natural world from afar. They can then put the information they gather on maps in a geographic information system (GIS) program and analyze the data. Scientists use GIS for many reasons, like tracking the greening of the Serengeti as the rainy season starts.
Currently, there's a lot of work in "ground-truthing" the data — i.e., literally going to the places the satellites and drones are looking at to see whether the scientists are correct in their estimates. GIS skills are useful in an array of fields, such as city planning and engineering.
Another consequence of our quick industrialization over the past few hundred years is the increase in pollution and contamination. A lot of economic activity damages the environment, in some cases spreading heavy metals and even radioactive material into communities' drinking water.
It's a big job to clean all of that up. But rather than shoveling dirt, what if you could spread microbes on the ground that would eat the pollution and neutralize it? Bioremediation scientists do just that by engineering microbes to clean up some of humans' largest messes.
7. Noise and Light Pollution
You might not think of noise and light as pollutants (unless your neighbors are being rowdy when you're trying to study), but they are. In this emerging field, researchers attempt to understand how noisy and bright environments can impact the organisms living within them.
For example, how does the roar of airports affect nearby wildlife? What happens if endangered orcas can't echolocate because of the noises from freighters carrying international cargo? How do glowing city lights confuse migrating birds? These are all critical questions those studying noise and light pollution are trying to answer.
Scientists who study the ocean are called oceanographers, but what about those who study fresh water? These scientists are called limnologists, and they play a big role as we work to understand and mitigate our impacts on rivers, lakes, and wetlands.
Because freshwater bodies of water are much smaller than the ocean, they can be much more sensitive to disruptions. For example, if you dump a truck full of fertilizer into the ocean, it won't have much of an impact. On the other hand, if you do the same in a lake, it could cause eutrophication, algae overgrowth which chokes every other living thing out of the water.
9. Conservation Biology
According to the World Wildlife Fund, between 200 and 2,000 species go extinct each year. This process can happen naturally, but humans have ramped up extinction rates to abnormally high levels. Our ecosystems depend on biodiversity, and to keep our environment healthy, we need to prevent animals from dying out.
It's not an easy job, and conservationists often find themselves on the losing end of the battle, but that doesn't mean we should stop. There's still a lot of opportunity to protect endangered species and understanding more about these species is the first step to saving them.
10. Environmental Justice
At last, the world is waking up to the fact that people of color and other marginalized populations lack something many take for granted: a healthy environment. Not everyone has access to clean drinking water, good soil, clean air, and green spaces. And without these things, you can't live your life to its fullest potential.
Right now, there's a lot of research being done to quantify the extent of these problems. How many people have been impacted by the Flint water crisis? What's happening to the widows of Navajo uranium miners? By documenting these impacts, we can work together towards an equitable solution that blends environmental science with sociology.
The Environment Needs Your Help
We face more challenges today than we ever have before in making sure Earth stays habitable for future generations. As our population grows, environmental problems will become more pressing and require more drastic solutions and changes.
The good news is that there's a lot of opportunity to lend a hand. Whether you decide to major in environmental science and tackle some of these problems or just educate yourself about the biggest issues for greater awareness, anything helps. As citizens of Earth, we're all tasked with the responsibility to keep our planet clean, healthy, and beautiful.
Feature Image: CasarsaGuru / E+ / Getty Images