Environmental Science For Dummies book cover

Environmental Science For Dummies

By: Alecia M. Spooner Published: 07-31-2012

The easy way to score high in Environmental Science

Environmental science is a fascinating subject, but some students have a hard time grasping the interrelationships of the natural world and the role that humans play within the environment. Presented in a straightforward format, Environmental Science For Dummies gives you plain-English, easy-to-understand explanations of the concepts and material you'll encounter in your introductory-level course.

Here, you get discussions of the earth's natural resources and the problems that arise when resources like air, water, and soil are contaminated by manmade pollutants. Sustainability is also examined, including the latest advancements in recycling and energy production technology. Environmental Science For Dummies is the most accessible book on the market for anyone who needs to get a handle on the topic, whether you're looking to supplement classroom learning or simply interested in learning more about our environment and the problems we face.

  • Presents straightforward information on complex concepts
  • Tracks to a typical introductory level Environmental Science course
  • Serves as an excellent supplement to classroom learning

If you're enrolled in an introductory Environmental Science course or studying for the AP Environmental Science exam, this hands-on, friendly guide has you covered.

Articles From Environmental Science For Dummies

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55 results
55 results
Environmental Science For Dummies Cheat Sheet

Cheat Sheet / Updated 04-07-2022

Environmental science is a field of study focused on Earth’s environment and the resources it provides to every living organism, including humans. Environmental scientists focus on studying the environment and everything in it and finding sustainable solutions to environmental issues. In particular, this means meeting the needs of human beings (and other organisms) today without damaging the environment, depleting resources, or compromising the earth’s ability to meet the resource needs of the future. A sustainable solution to an environmental problem must be ecologically sound, economically viable, and culturally acceptable. This Cheat Sheet summarizes some key aspects of what environmental scientists study.

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Long-Term Impact of Key Environmental Legislation in the U.S.

Article / Updated 03-26-2016

The peak of environmental legislation in the U.S. occurred in the 1960s and 1970s. In the 1970s in particular, the U.S. Congress passed a number of important laws to repair environmental damage and protect the environment from further pollution. In fact, the relatively clean and healthy environment you enjoy today is a result of the laws passed during this period (some of which have been updated multiple times since their initial passing). Here are a few of the laws that continue to have a big impact today: Clean Air Act of 1970: This law was the first to regulate air pollution on a national scale and set goals for improving air quality across the U.S. It was updated in 1990 to address ozone depletion and acid rain, in addition to overall air quality. Clean Water Act of 1972: Before this law, no rules mandated what type or amount of waste could be dumped into public waters. The Clean Water Act is viewed as one of the most successful pieces of environmental legislation because it led to dramatic improvement in water quality across the U.S. Endangered Species Act of 1973: The Endangered Species Act set up a process for legally recognizing and seeking to conserve plant and animal species in danger of extinction. As a result of this law, many species have recovered from near extinction, including the bald eagle, whooping crane, and grey wolf. Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974: This piece of legislation was aimed at improving public health by protecting public drinking water supplies from contamination. Amendments in 1986 and 1996 shifted the focus away from treating polluted water to protecting drinking water from pollution at its source. National Forest Management Act of 1976: This law required that national forest resources be managed through an approach that considers how timber removal affects the ecosystem as a whole. One effect of this act is that forest management plans also evaluate non-timber land use (such as recreation).

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What Defines an Ecosystem?

Article / Updated 03-26-2016

The basic unit of study in environmental science is the ecosystem. An ecosystem consists of a biological community and its physical environment. Here are the most important things you need to know about ecosystems: An ecosystem can be as small as a drop of water or as large as a forest. Some ecosystems (such as caves) have clear boundaries, while others (such as forests) do not. An ecosystem provides the organisms that live in it what they need to survive: food (energy), water, and shelter. All the biological processes in an ecosystem run on energy captured from the sun. Energy moves around an ecosystem through the food web. The number of producers (or plants) in an ecosystem determines that ecosystem’s productivity potential. An ecosystem recycles matter through the process of decomposition. Ecosystems provide services, such as food production (farmland), water filtering (wetlands), carbon removal, raw material production (timber, rubber), and aesthetic value. Because many modern human societies get their food, water, and other resources from all over the planet, you can consider the entire globe to be the human ecosystem.

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How to Characterize a Population of Living Things

Article / Updated 03-26-2016

Scientists who study living organisms examine them from different perspectives of complexity. The simplest level is the individual. Each individual is a member of a population. Each population is made up of a group of individuals of the same species that occupy the same environment and interact with each other. Many different populations together make up a community, and many different communities interact with one another in an ecosystem. A group of ecosystems that interact with one another is called a biome, and all the biomes on the globe make up the Earth’s biosphere. Examining populations, specifically, is useful because they grow, decline, and respond to their environment together. Scientists use a few common measurements to characterize populations: Size: The size of a population is the number of individuals that make it up. Density: The density of a population is the number of individuals (population size) in relation to the area they inhabit. Distribution: The distribution of a population indicates where the individuals are located across the environment they occupy. For example, although 1,000 honeybees may live in your backyard, most of them stay in the hive, while only a few fly around to the flowers. Sex ratio: The sex ratio of a population is the number of males versus females. Age structure: The age structure of a population describes how many individuals fall into different age classes. For example, some populations consist mainly of young individuals, while others include individuals spread across many ages.

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Working toward a More Sustainable Environment

Article / Updated 03-26-2016

Environmental science is all about finding ways to live more sustainably, which means using resources today in a way that maintains their supplies for the future. Environmental sustainability doesn’t mean living without luxuries, but rather being aware of your resource consumption and reducing unnecessary waste. The following sustainability measures start small with what you can do individually to take better care of the Earth; the list then branches out to cover more far-reaching changes. Eating locally: Depending more on locally available food reduces the amount of energy used in food transportation and supports your local food-producing economy. Recycling: Doing so reduces trash and conserves natural resources. Conserving water: Water conservation is the process of using less water to begin with and recycling or reusing as much water as possible. The goal of water conservation is to maintain a freshwater supply that can meet the needs of as many people as possible for as long as possible. Taking steps toward smarter land use: Both large-scale and small-scale possibilities include compact architecture and urban design to efficiently use land space, mixed-use planning that locates businesses close to where people live, and creation of parks and other green spaces to provide recreation for people and habitat for wildlife. Creating a sustainable economy: Environmental economists seek to include the cost of environmental damage in product pricing through taxes, fines, and regulations.

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How Biological Communities Work Together

Article / Updated 03-26-2016

Environmental scientists who study biological communities look at the number of organisms, the number of species, and the distribution of the plants and animals across the environments that they inhabit. Two measures that help scientists study communities and observe how they change over time or across their environment are abundance and richness: Abundance: The total number of organisms in a community Richness: The number of different species that make up a community Although these two concepts may seem similar, they measure two different things. For example, an anthill has a high abundance (many individuals) but low richness (only one species). Conversely, a tropical fish tank may have only a few individuals (low abundance), but it may have many different species (high richness). The ecological structure of a community describes where the organisms are physically located across their environment and in relation to one another. For example, a community’s ecological structure may be random, such as wildflowers scattered across a field. Or it may be clustered, such as a school of fish swimming together through the ocean. Some communities, such as communities of prairie dogs, even exhibit an orderly or uniform structure in which the individuals spread out at even intervals across the landscape. Biological communities and the process of succession Communities of organisms change over time in terms of how they’re structured and what species they contain. In particular, communities shift and change over time in a process called succession. While many types of communities experience change through succession, the concept is most easily illustrated with a plant community. The two types of plant succession are Primary succession: Pioneer species move into an environment that has no soil or organic matter present. After they have established themselves in their new environment, they begin to cycle nutrients and organic matter, creating soil and providing a healthy base for other (non-pioneer) species to follow. After enough organic matter is present in the soil to support them, tree seedlings take hold and grow, taking up space and blocking the sun from the smaller plants. The figure illustrates what primary succession looks like over time. Credit: Illustration by Lisa Reed Secondary succession: This type of succession occurs when soil is present and plants have been growing but are removed (usually by a disturbance of some kind). Similar to primary succession, pioneer species are the first to populate the cleared area, followed quickly by trees and larger plants. The end point of succession for plant communities, whether it’s primary or secondary, is the climax community, or the mature phase that plant communities reach when they’re left alone to grow and change. How biological communities respond to disturbances Of course, no community is left alone for very long! Even without humans or other animals, plant communities often have to deal with unexpected changes, such as floods, fires, and windstorms. These events that disrupt the community are called disturbances. Disturbances can change the structure of plant communities in several different ways, including knocking down trees or removing plants and animals from large parts of an environment. Although your instinct may tell you to protect communities from such disruptive events, scientists have found that some communities actually prefer to be disturbed every now and then.

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Patterns of Ocean Circulation

Article / Updated 03-26-2016

Environmental scientists study ocean circulation because, along with patterns of air movement in the atmosphere, the movement of water through the oceans helps determine weather and climate conditions for different regions of the world. The three main patterns of ocean circulation are gyres, upwelling, and thermohaline circulation. Patterns of ocean circulation: Gyres As the prevailing winds in earth’s atmosphere blow across the surface of the oceans, the winds push water in the direction that they’re blowing. As a result, the surface water of the oceans moves in concert with the air above it. This dual movement creates large circular patterns, or gyres, in each of the planet’s oceans. The ocean gyres move clockwise in the Northern Hemisphere and counterclockwise in the Southern Hemisphere. Ocean gyre circulation moves cold surface water from the poles to the equator, where the water is warmed before the gyres send it back toward the poles. The water’s temperature influences the temperature of the air: Cold currents bring cooler air to the coastline as they move toward the equator, and they bring warmer air to the continents they pass on their way back toward the poles. Patterns of ocean circulation: Upwelling Sometimes the movement of surface currents along a coastline leads to a circulation process called upwelling. As a result of the Coriolis effect, upwelling commonly occurs on the west coast of continents, where the surface waters moving toward the equator are replaced by deeper cold water that moves up to the surface. The deep water brings with it nutrients from the bottom of the ocean. These nutrients support the growth of primary producers, which support the entire food web in the ocean. Regions of the world where deep ocean upwelling occurs are often very productive with high numbers of many different types of organisms living in them. Patterns of ocean circulation: Thermohaline circulation The largest circulation of water on the planet is a direct result of changes in temperature and salinity. Salinity is the measure of dissolved salt in water. The pattern of ocean currents related to salinity and temperature is called the thermohaline circulation (thermo = heat; haline = salt). This figure gives you a general idea of what this pattern looks like. Credit: Illustration by Wiley, Composition Services Graphics Sometimes called the thermohaline conveyor belt, this circulation pattern moves cold water around the globe in deep water currents and warmer water in surface currents. A single molecule of water being transported by thermohaline circulation may take a thousand years to move completely throughout the Earth’s oceans. The conveyor is driven by changes in the density of water as a result of changes in both temperature and salinity. Here’s how this circulation pattern works: Warm water in a shallow current near the surface moves toward the North Pole near Iceland. As this water reaches the colder polar region, some of it freezes or evaporates, leaving behind the salt that was dissolved in it. The resulting water is colder and has more salt per volume than it did before (and thus is more dense). The cold, dense, salty water sinks deeper into the ocean and moves to the south, as far as Antarctica. After it makes its way near Antarctica, the cold, deep current splits, one branch moving up toward India into the Indian Ocean and the other continuing along Antarctica into the Pacific Ocean. Each branch of the cold, deep current is eventually warmed in the Indian Ocean or the northern part of the Pacific Ocean. Although the water still contains the same amount of salt, it’s a little less dense because it’s warmer than the cold water surrounding it; as a result, it moves upward, becoming a surface current. The warm, shallow, less dense surface current moves to the west, across the Pacific Ocean, and into the Indian Ocean, where it rejoins the Indian Ocean branch. Both branches then continue into the Atlantic Ocean and head back toward the North Pole. Environmental scientists who study global climate change are interested in how increased ice melting in the Arctic and Greenland will affect the thermohaline circulation. The addition of large amounts of fresh water will reduce the salinity and density and may change the pattern of global ocean circulation.

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Petroleum and Natural Gas Resources

Article / Updated 03-26-2016

Here is the lowdown on these fuels and a couple of lesser-known petroleum-related resources, and what the possible ecological effects and advantages of extracting them are. What you know as oil is actually called petroleum or crude oil and may exist as a combination of liquid, gas, and sticky, tar-like substances. Petroleum sources are usually small pockets of liquid or gas trapped within rock layers deep underground (often under the seafloor). Extracted crude oil is refined and used to manufacture gasoline (used in transportation) and petrochemicals (used in the production of plastics, pharmaceuticals, and cleaning products). Like other resources, oil isn’t evenly distributed across the globe. The top oil-producing countries are Saudi Arabia, Russia, the United States, Iran, China, Canada, and Mexico. Together, these countries produce more than half of the total oil resources in the world. While some petroleum is found in gas form, the most common natural gas is methane. Methane usually occurs in small amounts with petroleum deposits and is often extracted at the same time as the petroleum. Natural gas can be found in certain rock layers, trapped in the tiny spaces in sedimentary rocks. Drilling for oil Oil companies pump liquid oil out of the ground by using drilling rigs and wells that access the pockets of oil resources. The oil fills the rock layers the way water fills a sponge — spreading throughout open spaces — instead of existing as a giant pool of liquid. This arrangement means that to pump out all the oil, drillers have to extend or relocate the wells after the immediate area has been emptied. Oil drilling rigs set on platforms in the ocean to access oil reserves below the seafloor must therefore employ a series of more technically complex drill rigs built to access oil reserves in deeper water. The figure illustrates some of the most commonly used ocean drilling rigs and platforms and the water depths they’re most suited for. Credit: Illustration by Lisa Reed Oil is a cleaner fuel than coal, but it still has many disadvantages, such as the following: Refining petroleum creates air pollution. Transforming crude oil into petrochemicals releases toxins into the atmosphere that are dangerous for human and ecosystem health. Burning gasoline releases CO2. Although oil doesn’t produce the same amount of CO2 that coal burning does, it still contributes greenhouse gases to the atmosphere and increases global warming. Oil spills cause great environmental damage. Large oil spills sometimes occur during drilling, transport, and use, which of course affects the surrounding environment. But these spills aren’t the only risk. Although large oil spills with catastrophic environmental effects — such as the 1989 Exxon Valdez in Alaska or the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico — get the most media coverage, most of the oil spilled into ecosystems is actually from oil that leaks from cars, airplanes, and boats, as well as illegal dumping. Fracking for natural gas Natural gas is a relatively clean-burning fuel source — it produces approximately half the CO2 emissions that coal burning produces — so demand for natural gas has increased in the last few decades as concerns grow about carbon emissions and global warming. Now fuel producers are exploring natural gas in reservoirs separate from petroleum as sources of this fuel. To release the gas from the rocks and capture it for use as fuel, companies use a method of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. Fracking for natural gas requires injecting a liquid mix of chemicals, sand, and water into the gas-bearing rock at super high pressures — high enough to crack open the rock, releasing trapped gases. The gas is then pumped out of the rock along with the contaminated water. The sand and chemicals are left behind in the rock fractures, leading to groundwater pollution and potentially less stable bedrock. Currently scientists are concerned that earthquakes in regions of the Midwestern U.S. that have never experienced earthquakes before are the result of wastewater from natural gas fracking operations. Unconventional petroleum resources Although oil and natural gas are the most common petroleum resources, other similar, lesser-known resources are available: Tar sands: In some parts of the world (such as Canada and Venezuela), large deposits of sand are mixed with tar or bitumen, a sticky hydrocarbon substance. Although the tar sand resources are vast in these regions, they have high environmental costs, such as the habitat destruction required to extract them and the production of greenhouse gases and toxic waste in the refinery process. Oil shales: Oil shales are sedimentary rocks that contain kerogen, an oil-like substance. The current process for extracting the oil from these rocks involves using and polluting large amounts of water. So far, researchers haven’t found an environmentally safe and economically reasonable way to access these fossil fuel resources, but research continues.

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The Search for Alternative Energy

Article / Updated 03-26-2016

Alternative or renewable energy sources aren’t based on resources that are in limited supply on Earth; instead, they’re captured from processes (such as wind, waves, and sunshine) that are continually being driven by energy from the sun or created using materials (such as water) that are naturally renewed through Earth’s processes. Most of the energy fueling today’s industrial societies and the developing world comes from burning fossil fuels, such as coal, oil, and natural gas. Fossil fuel and nuclear energy sources rely on finding and then destroying geologic resources, such as coal, plutonium, and uranium. These resources are in limited supply on the planet, and over the last century, coal, oil, and natural gas in particular have become more difficult to access. At some point, the cost of extracting and processing fossil fuels will be more than the returns in energy they provide. And while nuclear energy is a powerful alternative, it also relies on stores of the geologic resource uranium, which is in abundant but still limited supplies. The table lists some alternative energy resources and their associated pros and cons, as well as any pollutants they create. Alternative Energy Resources Energy Source Pro Con Emissions/Pollutants Biofuel Easily grown anywhere Competes with food crops Particulates (small particles of solid or liquid material suspended in the air) Water Endlessly renewable, clean Some habitat destruction None Geothermal Low cost after installation Geographically limited None Wind Low cost to install Geographically limited Potential danger to flying organisms (birds, bats, and butterflies) Solar Endlessly renewable High initial costs None Fuel cells Very efficient, no pollution Difficult storage and transport None (if fossil fuels aren’t needed to process and transport them)

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Types of Environmental Science Experiments

Article / Updated 03-26-2016

In environmental science, experimental design is an extremely important part of the scientific method. When a scientist seeks to prove or disprove a hypothesis, he or she must carefully design the experiment so that it tests only one thing, or variable. If the scientist doesn’t design the experiment carefully around that one variable, the results may be confusing. The two main types of experiments scientists use to test their hypotheses are Natural experiments: Natural experiments are basically just observations of things that have already happened or that already exist. In these experiments, the scientist records what he or she observes without changing the various factors. This type of experiment is very common in environmental science when scientists collect information about an ecosystem or the environment. Manipulative experiments: Other experiments are manipulative experiments, in which a scientist controls some conditions and changes other conditions to test the hypothesis. Sometimes manipulative experiments can occur in nature, but they’re easier to regulate when they occur in a laboratory setting. Most manipulative experiments have both a control group and a manipulated group. For example, if a scientist were testing for the danger of a certain chemical in mice, the scientist would set up a control group of mice that weren’t exposed to the chemical and a manipulated group of mice that were exposed to the chemical. By setting up both groups, the scientist can observe any changes that occur only in the manipulated group and be confident that those changes were the result of the chemical exposure. When designing manipulative experiments, scientists have to be careful to avoid bias. Bias occurs when scientists have some preconceived ideas or preferences concerning what they are testing. These ideas may influence how they set up the experiment, how they collect the data, and how they interpret the data. To avoid bias, an environmental scientist can set up a blind experiment, in which other scientists set up a control group and a manipulated group and don’t inform the scientist who’s actually observing the experiment which one is which.

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