50 Best Environmental Science Research Topics
May 31, 2023
Environmental science is a varied discipline that encompasses a variety of subjects, including ecology, atmospheric science, and geology among others. Professionals within this field can pursue many occupations from lab technicians and agricultural engineers to park rangers and environmental lawyers. However, what unites these careers is their focus on how the natural world and the human world interact and impact the surrounding environment. There is also one other significant commonality among environmental science careers: virtually all of them either engage in or rely on research on environmental science topics to ensure their work is accurate and up to date.
In this post, we’ll outline some of the best environmental science research topics to help you explore disciplines within environmental science and kickstart your own research. If you are considering majoring in environmental science or perhaps just need help brainstorming for a research paper, this post will give you a broad sense of timely environmental science research topics.
What makes a research topic good?
Before we dive into specific environmental science research topics, let’s first cover the basics: what qualities make for a viable research topic. Research is the process of collecting information to make discoveries and reach new conclusions. We often think of research as something that occurs in academic or scientific settings. However, everyone engages in informal research in everyday life, from reading product reviews to investigating statistics for admitted students at prospective colleges. While we all conduct research in our day-to-day lives, formal academic research is necessary to advance discoveries and scholarly discourses. Therefore, in this setting, good research hinges on a topic in which there are unanswered questions or ongoing debates. In other words, meaningful research focuses on topics where you can say something new.
However, identifying an interesting research topic is only the first step in the research process. Research topics tend to be broad in scope. Strong research is dependent on developing a specific research question, meaning the query your project will seek to answer. While there are no comprehensive guidelines for research questions, most scholars agree that research questions should be:
Research questions need to clearly identify and define the focus of your research. Without sufficient detail, your research will likely be too broad or imprecise in focus to yield meaningful insights. For example, you might initially be interested in addressing this question: How should governments address the effects of climate change? While that is a worthwhile question to investigate, it’s not clear enough to facilitate meaningful research. What level of government is this question referring to? And what specific effects of global warming will this research focus on? You would need to revise this question to provide a clearer focus for your research. A revised version of this question might look like this: How can state government officials in Florida best mitigate the effects of sea-level rise?
Our interest in a given topic often starts quite broad. However, it is difficult to produce meaningful, thorough research on a broad topic. For that reason, it is important that research questions be narrow in scope, focusing on a specific issue or subtopic. For example, one of the more timely environmental science topics is renewable energy. A student who is just learning about this topic might wish to write a research paper on the following question: Which form of renewable energy is best? However, that would be a difficult question to answer in one paper given the various ways in which an energy source could be “best.” Instead, this student might narrow their focus, assessing renewable energy sources through a more specific lens: Which form of renewable energy is best for job creation?
As we previously discussed, good research leads to new discoveries. These lines of inquiry typically require a complicated and open-ended research question. A question that can be answered with just a “yes” or “no” (or a quick Google search) is likely indicative of a topic in which additional research is unnecessary (i.e. there is no ongoing debate) or a topic that is not well defined. For example, the following question would likely be too simple for academic research: What is environmental justice? You can look up a definition of environmental justice online. You would need to ask a more complex question to sustain a meaningful research project. Instead, you might conduct research on the following query: Which environmental issue(s) disproportionately impact impoverished communities in the Pacific Northwest? This question is narrower and more specific, while also requiring more complex thought and analysis to answer.
Again, strong research provides new answers and information, which means that they must be situated within topics or discourses where there is ongoing debate. If a research question can only lead to one natural conclusion, that may indicate that it has already been sufficiently addressed in prior research or that the question is leading. For example, Are invasive species bad? is not a very debatable question (the answer is in the term “invasive species”!). A paper that focused on this question would essentially define and provide examples of invasive species (i.e. information that is already well documented). Instead, a researcher might investigate the effects of a specific invasive species. For example: How have Burmese pythons impacted ecosystems in the Everglades, and what mitigation strategies are most effective to reduce Burmese python populations?
Therefore, research topics, including environmental science topics, are those about which there are ample questions yet to be definitively answered. Taking time to develop a thoughtful research question will provide the necessary focus and structure to facilitate meaningful research.
10 Great Environmental Science Research Topics (With Explanations!)
Now that we have a basic understanding of what qualities can make or break a research topic, we can return to our focus on environmental science topics. Although “great” research topics are somewhat subjective, we believe the following topics provide excellent foundations for research due to ongoing debates in these areas, as well as the urgency of the challenges they seek to address.
1) Climate Change Adaptation and Mitigation
Although climate change is now a well-known concept, there is still much to be learned about how humans can best mitigate and adapt to its effects. Mitigation involves reducing the severity of climate change. However, there are a variety of ways mitigation can occur, from switching to electric vehicles to enforcing carbon taxes on corporations that produce the highest carbon emission levels. Many of these environmental science topics intersect with issues of public policy and economics, making them very nuanced and versatile.
In comparison, climate change adaptation considers how humans can adjust to life in an evolving climate where issues such as food insecurity, floods, droughts, and other severe weather events are more frequent. Research on climate change adaptation is particularly fascinating due to the various levels at which it occurs, from federal down to local governments, to help communities anticipate and adjust to the effects of climate change.
Both climate change mitigation and adaptation represent excellent environmental science research topics as there is still much to be learned to address this issue and its varied effects.
2) Renewable Energy
Renewable energy is another fairly mainstream topic in which there is much to learn and research. Although scientists have identified many forms of sustainable energy, such as wind, solar, and hydroelectric power, questions remain about how to best implement these energy sources. How can politicians, world leaders, and communities advance renewable energy through public policy? What impact will renewable energy have on local and national economies? And how can we minimize the environmental impact of renewable energy technologies? While we have identified alternatives to fossil fuels, questions persist about the best way to utilize these technologies, making renewable energy one of the best environmental science topics to research.
Conservation is a broad topic within environmental science, focusing on issues such as preserving environments and protecting endangered species. However, conservation efforts are more challenging than ever in the face of a growing world population and climate change. In fact, some scientists theorize that we are currently in the middle of a sixth mass extinction event. While these issues might seem dire, we need scientists to conduct research on conservation efforts for specific species, as well as entire ecosystems, to help combat these challenges and preserve the planet’s biodiversity.
The Save the Rainforest movement of the 1980s and 90s introduced many people to the issue of deforestation. Today, the problems associated with deforestation, such as reduced biodiversity and soil erosion, are fairly common knowledge. However, these challenges persist due, in part, to construction and agricultural development projects. While we know the effects of deforestation, it is more difficult to identify and implement feasible solutions. This is particularly true in developing countries where deforestation is often more prevalent due to political, environmental, and economic factors. Environmental science research can help reduce deforestation by identifying strategies to help countries sustainably manage their natural resources.
Environmental Science Topics (Continued)
5) Urban Ecology
When we think of “the environment,” our brains often conjure up images of majestic mountain ranges and lush green forests. However, less “natural” environments also warrant study: this is where urban ecology comes in. Urban ecology is the study of how organisms interact with one another and their environment in urban settings. Through urban ecology, researchers can address topics such as how greenspaces in cities can reduce air pollution, or how local governments can adopt more effective waste management practices. As one of the newer environmental science topics, urban ecology represents an exciting research area that can help humans live more sustainably.
6) Environmental Justice
While environmental issues such as climate change impact people on a global scale, not all communities are affected equally. For example, wealthy nations tend to contribute more to greenhouse-gas emissions. However, less developed nations are disproportionately bearing the brunt of climate change. Studies within the field of environmental justice seek to understand how issues such as race, national origin, and income impact the degree to which people experience hardships from environmental issues. Researchers in this field not only document these inequities, but also identify ways in which environmental justice can be achieved. As a result, their work helps communities have access to clean, safe environments in which they can thrive.
7) Water Management
Water is, of course, necessary for life, which is why water management is so important within environmental science research topics. Water management research ensures that water resources are appropriately identified and maintained to meet demand. However, climate change has heightened the need for water management research, due to the occurrence of more severe droughts and wildfires. As a result, water management research is necessary to ensure water is clean and accessible.
8) Pollution and Bioremediation
Another impact of the increase in human population and development is heightened air, water, and soil pollution. Environmental scientists study pollutants to understand how they work and where they originate. Through their research, they can identify solutions to help address pollution, such as bioremediation, which is the use of microorganisms to consume and break down pollutants. Collectively, research on pollution and bioremediation helps us restore environments so they are sufficient for human, animal, and plant life.
Environmental Science Topics (Continued)
9) Disease Ecology
While environmental science topics impact the health of humans, we don’t always think of this discipline as intersecting with medicine. But, believe it or not, they can sometimes overlap! Disease ecology examines how ecological processes and interactions impact disease evolution. For example, malaria is a disease that is highly dependent on ecological variables, such as temperature and precipitation. Both of these factors can help or hinder the breeding of mosquitoes and, therefore, the transmission of malaria. The risk of infectious diseases is likely to increase due to climate change, making disease ecology an important research topic.
10) Ecosystems Ecology
If nothing else, the aforementioned topics and their related debates showcase just how interconnected the world is. None of us live in a vacuum: our environment affects us just as we affect it. That makes ecosystems ecology, which examines how ecosystems operate and interact, an evergreen research topic within environmental science.
40 More Environmental Science Research Topics
Still haven’t stumbled upon the right environmental science research topic? The following ideas may help spark some inspiration:
- The effects of agricultural land use on biodiversity and ecosystems.
- The impact of invasive plant species on ecosystems.
- How wildfires and droughts shape ecosystems.
- The role of fire ecology in addressing wildfire threats.
- The impact of coral bleaching on biodiversity.
- Ways to minimize the environmental impact of clean energies.
- The effects of climate change on ocean currents and migration patterns of marine species.
Environmental Justice and Public Policy
- Opportunities to equalize the benefits of greenspaces for impoverished and marginalized communities.
- The impact of natural disasters on human migration patterns.
- The role of national parks and nature reserves in human health.
- How to address inequalities in the impact of air pollution.
- How to prevent and address the looming climate refugee crisis.
- Environmentally and economically sustainable alternatives to deforestation in less developed countries.
- Effects of environmental policies and regulations on impoverished communities.
- The role of pollutants in endocrine disruption.
- The effects of climate change on the emergence of infectious diseases.
AP Environmental Science Research Topics (Continued)
- Effects of climate change on soil erosion.
- The role of land management in maintaining soil health.
- Agricultural effects of salinization in coastal areas.
- The effects of climate change on agriculture.
- How road construction impacts biodiversity and ecosystems.
- The effects of urbanization and city planning on water cycles.
- Impacts of noise pollution on human health.
- The role of city planning in reducing light pollution.
Pollution and Bioremediation
- The role of bioremediation in removing “forever” chemicals from the environment.
- Impacts of air pollution on maternal health.
- How to improve plastic recycling processes.
- Individual measures to reduce consumption and creation of microplastics.
- Environmental impacts of and alternatives to fracking.
Environmental Science Topics (Continued)
Environmental Law and Ethics
- Ethical implications of human intervention in the preservation of endangered species.
- The efficacy and impact of single-use plastic laws.
- Effects of religious and cultural values in environmental beliefs.
- The ethics of climate change policy for future generations.
- Ethical implications of international environmental regulations for less developed countries.
- The impact and efficacy of corporate carbon taxes.
- Ethical and environmental implications of fast fashion.
- The ethics and efficacy of green consumerism.
- Impacts of the hospitality and travel industries on pollution and emissions.
- The ethical implications of greenwashing in marketing.
- Effects of “Right to Repair” laws on pollution.
Final Thoughts: Environmental Science Research Topics
Environmental science is a diverse and very important area of study that impacts all aspects of life on Earth. If you’ve found a topic you’d like to pursue, it’s time to hit the books (or online databases)! Begin reading broadly on your chosen topic so you can define a specific research question. If you’re unsure where to begin, contact a research librarian who can connect you with pertinent resources. As you familiarize yourself with the discourse surrounding your topic, consider what questions spring to mind. Those questions may represent gaps around which you can craft a research question.
Interested in conducting academic research? Check out the following resources for information on research opportunities and programs:
- Research Opportunities for High School Students
- Colleges with the Best Undergraduate Research Programs