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(1) Environmental Science

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Introduction to Environmental Science

Environmental science is the study of Earth’s environment. To study the environment, scientists draw from many other disciplines, including chemistry, geography, economics, and everything in between. No wonder students new to environmental science often find themselves dizzy at the breadth of information needed to study and solve environmental problems.

In its simplest terms, environmental science is the study of the air you breathe, the water you drink, and the food you eat. But environmental scientists study so much of the natural world and the way humans interact with it that their studies spill over into many other fields. Whether you’re a student in a college course or someone who read this text to find out what environmental science is all about, you’ll find that the ideas in these texts apply to your life.

Like any living creature, you depend on environmental resources. More importantly perhaps is the fact that humans, unlike other living creatures, have the ability to damage these resources with pollution and overuse. These texts provide a quick overview of the environment, its systems, and its many resources. It also talks about what humans can do to reduce their impact on the environment today and into the future. After all, maintaining the health of the Earth and its resources at both the local and global level is something everyone has a stake in.

Putting the “Science” in Environmental Science

Environmental science draws on knowledge from many different fields of study, including the so-called hard sciences like chemistry, biology, and geology and the social sciences like economics, geography, and political science. This text offers a quick overview of some of the scientific concepts, such as how to apply the scientific method to answer questions, that you need to be familiar with as you start your exploration of environmental science

Using the scientific method

The scientific method is simply a methodical approach to asking questions and collecting information to answer those questions. Although many classes teach it as something that only scientists use, you use it just about every day, too. You may not write down each step of the scientific method when you use it, but anytime you ask a question and use your senses to answer it, you’re using the scientific method. For example, when standing at a crosswalk, you look both ways to determine whether a car is coming and whether an approaching car is going slow enough for you to safely cross the street before it arrives. In this example, you have made an observation, collected information, and based a decision on that information - just like a scientist!

The power of the scientific method is in the way scientists use it to organize questions and answers. It helps them keep track of what’s known and what’s unknown as they gather more knowledge. This organization becomes particularly important when they study large, complex systems like those found in the natural world. Scientists always have more to learn about the natural world, and using the scientific method is one way that they can follow the path of scientific investigation from one truth to another.

Understanding the connection between atoms, energy, and life

Studying the environment includes studying how matter, energy, and living things interact. This is where other fields of study, such as chemistry, physics, and biology, come into play. Here are just a few of the core ideas from these sciences that you need to understand as you study environmental science:

All matter is made of atoms.

 The matter is never created or destroyed, but it does change form.

Living matter, or life, is made up of complex combinations of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen atoms.

Most of the energy at Earth’s surface comes from the sun.

Energy transfers from one form to another.

Living things, or organisms, either capture the sun’s energy (through photosynthesis) or get their energy by eating other living things.

Analyzing the Earth’s Physical Systems and Ecosystems

The environment consists of many different systems that interact with one another on various levels. Some systems are physical, such as the hydrologic system that transfers water between the atmosphere and the Earth’s surface. Other systems are built on interactions between living things, such as predator-prey relationships.

Scientists recognize that systems can be either open or closed. An open system allows matter and energy to enter and exit. A closed system keeps matter and energy inside of it. Very few systems in the natural world are truly closed systems. Scientists view the planet as a closed system in terms of matter (no matter enters or leaves the Earth), but they consider it an open system in terms of energy (energy enters the Earth from the sun).

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