Top 10 Environmental Science Research Topics

Top 10 Environmental Science Research Topics
portrait of Lindsay VanSomeren
By Lindsay VanSomeren

Published on December 18, 2020

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People tend to overlook the environment. They know it's important but fail to understand how important it really is. Without a healthy environment, we wouldn't have fields like physics, economics, medicine, engineering, and education — because there wouldn't be any humans.

Today, the environment is changing at a faster rate than at almost any other time since humans have been on Earth. As a result, we need people who can study the environment and ensure it's healthy for everyone, no matter where they live.

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. While climate change affects everyone, it especially impacts those who study the environment.

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, it's been the United States' official policy to stamp out any and all fires wherever they occur. After all, Smokey Bear told us so. 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 important, these scientists are trying to understand how humans can live in harmony with fire.

3. Renewable Energy

We built modern society on the backs of 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. But although these new resources may be carbon-neutral, that doesn't mean they don't come at a cost.

For example, wind energy, which is often touted as the ultimate green energy source, has a nasty tendency to whack birds out of the air, including endangered species. Hydro power blocks migratory fish like salmon from being able to reproduce, causing fisheries to suffer. Even solar power can block sunlight from reaching plants.

Developing a green future means identifying potential threats and figuring out how to reduce or eliminate them.

4. Urban Ecology

We tend to think of the environment as a clean, pristine, faraway place, like what you see in a bottled water commercial. But the reality is that the environment is right here, where you are — even if that's in the middle of a bustling city.

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 cover vast amounts of land, scientists are increasingly turning to tools like satellites and drones to spy on the natural world from afar. They can then put the information they get 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.

6. Bioremediation

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 take care of some of humans' largest messes.

7. Noise Pollution

You might not think noise could be a pollutant (aside from rowdy neighbors when you're trying to study), but it is. In this newly emerging field, researchers attempt to understand how noisy 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 ambient city noises subtly affect people trying to sleep? These are all critical questions those studying noise pollution are trying to answer.

8. Limnology

Scientists who study the ocean are called oceanographers, but one overlooked area is our world's freshwater. Those who research freshwater are called limnologists, and they're playing an increasingly bigger role as we work to understand and mitigate our impacts on water ecosystems.

Because freshwater bodies of water are much smaller than the ocean, there's more potential for things to go awry in them. For example, if you dump a truck full of fertilizer into the ocean, it won't have much of an impact. But if you do the same in a lake, it could cause eutrophication, or the process of algae growing too fast and choking every other living thing out of the water.

9. Conservation Biology

Scientists estimate that between 200 and 2,000 species go extinct each year. Extinction is a normal process, but humans have ramped up this rate to abnormally high levels. Our ecosystem depends on biodiversity, and to keep our environment healthy, we need to prevent animals from going extinct.

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 save endangered species and prevent existing species from becoming endangered in the first place.

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 toward a solution in this unique niche 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

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