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Environmental Research

Research methodologies, sampling techniques, fieldwork... we have come across these in some of our previous articles. They are all part of environmental research. Environmental research is crucial for us to understand our biome and ourselves. For instance, the Biotics Research Corporation writes:Exposure to pesticides, metals, and plastics have all been shown to modulate the microbiota in human and animal studies.1Understanding…

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Environmental Research

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Research methodologies, sampling techniques, fieldwork... we have come across these in some of our previous articles. They are all part of environmental research. Environmental research is crucial for us to understand our biome and ourselves. For instance, the Biotics Research Corporation writes:

Exposure to pesticides, metals, and plastics have all been shown to modulate the microbiota in human and animal studies.1

Understanding these little puzzle pieces is what gives us precision in scientific research. It helps us achieve accuracy and replicability, but also unique or anomalous conclusions sometimes. Isn't it exciting to be able to identify deviations or exceptions from the known rule?

Environmental Research Definition

Environmental research is the scientific study of environmental processes and systems, including the effects of human activity on these systems.

The goal of environmental research is to understand how:

  • the natural world works

  • human activity affects the environment (both natural and built)

  • to develop sustainable environmental management practices.

Environmental research is a broad field that encompasses topics from air and water quality to climate change. Scientists use a variety of tools and techniques to carry out environmental research, including field studies, laboratory experiments, and computer modelling.

Additionally, environmental research is important for medical practitioners. A number of environmental conditions, exposures and pollutants increase or decrease the likelihood of certain diseases.

Types of Environmental Research Methods

Environmental research methods can be divided into three main types:

  • field environmental research

  • laboratory environmental research

  • numerical modelling

Field environmental research is conducted in natural settings complete with their phenomena, such as forests, lakes, and oceans. Laboratory environmental research is conducted in controlled settings, such as laboratories and greenhouses.

Field environmental research can be small-scale, such as in a backyard, or on a large scale, such as in a national park. Laboratory research allows scientists to isolate and manipulate variables, and it is often used to study the effects of pollution or other human activities on the environment.

A portable field kit that fits into a suitcase can be a quite popular option for more remote areas or when rapid results are needed. It can replicate lab conditions for the testing of microbiological factors while outside. Water, soil or bodily wastes can be more easily tested in this manner.

Finally, numerical modelling is another popular environmental research method. This approach uses computer models to simulate environmental processes and predict their outcomes. Numerical modelling is often used to study the potential impacts of climate change or other large-scale environmental changes, such as changes in the numbers and movements of animal or bacterial ecological communities.

'Canute' was a free-to-use web tool created by a research centre to allow users to calculate sea level rise in and around Australia. It had different parameters which could be customised such as the number of years over which projections were desired, projected global air and seawater temperature rise, tides and storm surges, and other data.

Examples of Environmental Research

Environmental research has been carried out for both the biotic and abiotic world.

Biotic refers to the living world, while abiotic, to the non-living world.

For the biotic world, the following have been used:

  • Camera traps, which include technology such as night-vision, motion sensitive and/or drone (aerial) cameras.

  • Markings, such as tags on a fin, ear, carapace or scale, foot tags, such as in birds, which can provide data such as age, health, who caught it previously, etc. Trackers, such as satellite tracking devices and radio collars.

  • DNA or chemical tracking can be done either through obtaining genetic material directly from an individual, or by analysing their environment for their DNA signature, or for a by-product that only the organism produces.

  • Auditory monitoring, through detecting and recording the low or high-pitched noises some species make.

Example 1: Using Bioindicators to Identify Pollution or Disturbance

Bioindicators are species that can indicate pollution or disturbance trends because they are sensitive to one or both and respond accordingly (their population dynamics change).

Species used as bioindicators can range from bacteria, to amphibians and mammals.

Corals, such as Leptogorgia virgulata, are used as bioindicators to identify oil spill gravity, as well as climate change and oceanic current variations.

For the abiotic world, the following have been used:

  • Electronic meters which usually function on batteries and can show, depending on the environment analysed, pH, wind velocity, ice depth, strength of the oceanic currents, etc.

The composition of water and soil require specific analysis techniques. Analytical techniques that examine the composition of soils include:

  • X-ray diffraction, nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy, and scanning electron microscopy.

  • Physical techniques such as filtration and sedimentation to separate a mixture into its different constituents, special sieves

  • Test strips imbued with certain agents that react to the presence of another chemical substance (phosphorous, for example).

Example 2: Effects of Slope and Vegetation on Rain Splash Erosion

Splash erosion is a type of soil erosion that occurs when raindrops fall on bare soil and dislodge small particles of soil, which are then transported by the flow of water. Splash erosion is a significant problem in many agricultural and forestry areas, as it can lead to losses of topsoil and the deterioration of the quality of the land. Because the factors that have the greatest influence on splash erosion include the slope of the land and the type of vegetation present, all sorts of techniques are being tested to reduce the loss of topsoil fertility. This one is a combined biotic (vegetation) and abiotic (rain and slope) environmental research topic.

Crops with short roots and little canopy cover are more susceptible to splash erosion than those with deep roots and dense canopy cover. In general, steeper slopes are more prone to splash erosion than gentle slopes, and areas with low rainfall are more susceptible than those with high rainfall.

Experimental system examples include the use of funnels, trays and cups (such as Tübingen cups), as well as rainwater simulation rooms.

Importance of Environmental Research

Environmental research is important because it studies environmental issues and their solutions!

Environmental research is such a wide-ranging field that includes the study of air pollution, water pollution, soil contamination, environmental health, and more. It helps develop expert knowledge of a field. Accurate data means we can also design effective environmental policies.


Environmental research also helps to raise public awareness of environmental issues and promote environmental stewardship. By conducting environmental research, we can become better stewards of our planet and ensure a healthy environment for future generations.

Last but not least, environmental research can help eliminate bias. Random sampling and selection are important to avoid wilfully selecting sampling spots that fit unspecific criteria, such as in soil sampling for invertebrates.

Sometimes, checking the coordinates grid on a satellite map of an area may help pre-select appropriate sampling spots before actually going there, in order to avoid bias.

In the UK, grids can be obtained from the Ordnance Survey maps. The map scale standard is usually 1:25000, where 1 cm on the (virtual) map represents 25,000 cm on the (real) ground.

Environmental Research Design

In environmental research, design refers to the planning and execution of a study in order to collect reliable data that can be used to answer a specific question.

There are many factors to consider when designing an environmental research study, including the type of data needed, the geographical area of interest, the available resources, the timeline for the project, or any survey limitations.

Limitations can include weather conditions, food shortages, or even a third party interfering with the research. For example, for safety purposes, red grouse (L. l. scotica) ecological surveys should be carried out outside the hunting season in the UK.

Each approach to an environmental research design has its own strengths and weaknesses.

Experiments are well suited to testing cause-and-effect relationships, while observational studies are better at detecting long-term trends.

The first step in environmental research design is to identify the goals of the research and select an appropriate research methodology.

It is recommended to not send people alone on fieldwork, due to the negative psychological effects correlated with lone working in remote areas for long hours. It is also helpful to have someone with you in case medical or other kinds of emergencies happen.

A research methodology can be, as mentioned, based on cause-and-effect (correlational), on changes occurring during a given timespan (longitudinal) or on a highly specific phenomenon or situation (case study).

Sampling Methods in Environmental Research

The research methodology is also defined by its sampling choice, such as:

  • Random or systematic sampling at specific locations: samples taken at random or specific intervals using quadrats (areas of different sizes in the shape of a rectangle), transects (the selection of organisms along lines), etc.

  • Number and frequency of samples: e.g. how often should DNA be extracted from a selected species or individual.

  • Sample size

If environmental research is done to identify the quantity of pesticides in a body of water, enough water must be collected to gather enough of the dissolved chemical agent in it (nanogram per microlitre detection threshold).

Obtaining samples directly from the studied subject is vital for research. Animal traps, such as nets and pitfall traps, help bring in primary data without harming an organism, as long as best practice guidelines are followed.

Some types of traps or catching techniques, such as light traps, may only be used for photosensitive insects, such as moths. Other 'trap' types, such as soil flooding with water and an irritant substance, may only work for finding a specific organism or species (earthworms).

The Next Steps in Environmental Research

Once the methodology has been selected, the researcher must develop a data collection plan and budget.

A preliminary desk study may be needed before any field surveys commence.

Finally, the researcher must analyse the data and write a report to communicate the findings. Many of these reports are published in the hope that they can then reach a greater audience and bring awareness as well as feedback. The more funding environmental research receives, the better the scientific and public understanding of it becomes.

Collection, preservation, and transport greatly influence the quality of a sample, especially if these steps lead to its alteration. Different samples may be more or less stable at different temperatures, or may need chemical agents added to them to maintain their quality.

Faecal samples are often collected from animals during field studies. To ensure that it is not significantly altered by the time they reach a lab, stool may be mixed with pure ethanol (a type of alcohol), and kept in a sealed container (an oxygen-free environment to help preserve sensitive bacteria). All this is done to ensure that the microorganisms present in the sample do not die.

No single environmental research method is perfect, but by combining different approaches, we can gain a more complete understanding of the complex interactions between the natural world and human activity. Environmental research design is essential for ensuring that environmental research is conducted in a manner that produces reliable and valid results.


Environmental research is important because it helps us to understand how humans interact with the environment. By better understanding the environment and the effects of human activity on it, environmental research can help us find ways to protect the planet and its inhabitants.

Environmental Research - Key takeaways

  • Field studies, laboratory experiments, and computer modelling are used to conduct environmental research.
  • Environmental research provides important information on ecological communities and their movements, the predictability of our crop yields, the degree of sea level rise as a result of climate change, etc.
  • Environmental research depends on efficient sampling methodologies, such as the use of traps, satellite data, electronic meters, pH strips, etc.
  • Field environmental research, laboratory environmental research, desk studies and numerical modelling are all puzzle pieces that work together to ensure accurate data delivery.

  • Public awareness towards environmental issues is directly shaped by the amount of research conducted and the financial support environmental research receives.


References

  1. Biotics Research, Environmental Pollutants & the Microbiome, 2020

Frequently Asked Questions about Environmental Research

Environmental research means 'the scientific study of environmental processes and systems, including the effects of human activity on these systems.'

Environmental research is important because it helps us understand how the natural world works, how human activity affects the environment (both natural and built), and helps to develop sustainable environmental management practices. 

The types of environmental research methods include field environmental research, laboratory environmental research, desk studies and numerical modelling. 

Environmental research design and methods are different. Sampling and research methods are a subcategory, or type, of the overarching environmental research design.

The best method in conducting environmental research is by taking physical/chemical data from the studied subject. 

Final Environmental Research Quiz

Environmental Research Quiz - Teste dein Wissen

Question

Why is environmental sampling important?

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Environmental sampling provides evidence to support scientific theories, identify rare species or detect harmful microbes.

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What happens if your sampling is biased?

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Biased sampling leads to over-representation or under-representation of a variable.

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This type of sampling is used where every member of a population is equally likely to be included.

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Random

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This type of sampling is used where there is an environmental gradient.

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Systematic

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This type of sampling is used where the sample area can be subdivided.

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Stratified

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What are the two types of transects?

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Continuous and interrupted.

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What is a criticism of the mark, release and recapture method?

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It makes several assumptions, such as random mixing and no migration.

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What is soil?

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Soil is the uppermost level of the Earth's crust, consisting of organic matter, minerals, gases and water.

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What is humus?

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Humus is the dark organic matter of soil, made up of decomposing plant and animal matter.

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How would you work out the moisture content of soil?

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Record the mass of fresh soil, allow it to dry, and then record its dry mass. The moisture content can be expressed as a percentage.

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What is enumeration?

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Enumeration is the complete ordered listing of items. 

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How would you burn off the humus content of a soil sample?

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Humus can be burnt using a furnace or a Bunsen burner.

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Which microbiology sampling method is unsuitable for uneven surfaces?

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Agar contact method

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Which microbiology sampling method is able to sample the entire study surface?

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Rinse method

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What does microbial sampling do?

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Microbiology sampling locates and identifies microbial populations. 

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What is sample size?

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Sample size is the number of participants or observations in a study.

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If your sample size does not represent the target population, it is what?

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Too small

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If your sample size results in using excess money, time or resources to complete your experiment, it is what?

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Too large

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What is the level of precision?

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The level of precision is the range in which the true value of a population is estimated to be. 

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What is the confidence level?

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The confidence level is the probability that the value of a parameter falls within a specified range of values

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What is the definition of accuracy?

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Accuracy is how close a measurement is to the true value.

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What is the degree of variability?

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The degree of variability is how heterogeneous the population is.

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What is the definition of precision?

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Precision is how consistent the results are when the measurements are repeated.

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Which of these is not a method to determine sample size?

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Level of precision

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To use published tables to find an appropriate sample size, data has to be normally distributed. True or false?

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True

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What confidence level is typically used in science?

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95%

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Using a census is an appropriate approach for populations below how many individuals?

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200

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What is a potential problem with using sample sizes from similar studies?

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Using sample sizes from similar studies runs the risk of repeating any mistakes made in previous studies.

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How is the level of precision expressed?

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The level of precision is expressed using percentage points (±).

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The higher your confidence level is, the more likely your results are...

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Accurate

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Define sampling.

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Sampling is the process of collecting data to obtain information about a population.

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A sample should be representative of the population. What does this mean?

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In a representative sample, the relevant characteristics of the sample match the characteristics of the overall population.

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Define sample location.

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Sample location is the place that an environmental sample was obtained.


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What is sampling bias?

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Sampling bias occurs when some members of a population are systematically more likely to be selected than others. 

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Define relative location.

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Relative location is a description of how a place is related to other places.

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What is random sampling?

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Random sampling is a sampling technique where every member of the population is equally likely to be included in a sample.

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What is systematic sampling?

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Systematic sampling is a sampling technique where samples are taken at fixed regular intervals.

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Which sampling technique is suitable for data that exhibits a pattern?

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Random sampling

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What is an environmental transect?

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An environmental gradient is a change in abiotic (non-living) factors through space.

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Define a transect.

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A transect is a line placed across a habitat.

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What kind of transect supplies more data, but is more time-consuming to use?

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Belt transect

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Define absolute location.

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Absolute location is a place's exact position on Earth.

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What are some accessibility problems associated with sampling locations?

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Accessibility problems include private land and geographical constraints.

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How can risk be minimised during sampling?

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Staying in groups

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What sampling technique is quicker and easier?

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Systematic sampling

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What are scientific methodologies?

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The entirety of methods used in scientific research to observe, quantify and analyse the naturally occurring world and its processes.

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What is the most notable scientific methodology?

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The scientific method

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Which of the following is not a step of the scientific method?

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Write a personal opinion.

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What is the first step of the scientific method?

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Observation

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What is the last step of the scientific method?

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Form a conclusion

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