You are on page 1of 12


Dr.K. Thanasekaran


ENVIRONMENT LITERALLY means the surroundings of an object. It is also the sum of

all external conditions and influences affecting the life and development of organisms.
For example, the environment of a plant refers to the conditions which favour the growth
of the particular plant. Our immediate concern is the environment in which humans live.
Earth is the habitat of humans but they do not live in isolation from other life forms on
the earth, as they depend on them for food and other necessities.


Earth is a unique planet of the solar system as it has conditions favourable for the
evolution and survival of various forms of life. The presence of water favours growth
and evolution of various species of plant and animal life, including humans. Thus, the
earth is unique in having a life–bearing layer or biosphere. The types of plants and
animals living in a particular region depend on the physical environment in that region.
Thus, the environment in which man lives consists of physical or non-living environment
and biological or living environment. The physical environment comprises the land,
water and air while the biological environment includes the plants, animals and other
organisms. The physical and biological environment interact with one another. A change
in physical environment brings about a change in biological environment or the vice

The physical and biological elements in the environment are dynamic in nature. Changes
take place slowly or suddenly in the nature of landforms. The circulation of air and water
brings about changes in the climatic conditions in different seasons. Long-term changes
also occur in the physical environment leading to extinction of certain species of plants
and animals and evolution of new species adapted to the physical environment. Changes
in the physical environment and corresponding variation in the biological environment
have been occurring as normal phenomena during the long history of the earth. While
some of the changes are due to natural processes, others are caused by human activities.


The natural environment consists of 4 spheres:
1. Atmosphere
2. Lithosphere
3. Hydrosphere
4. Biosphere
The spheres of the environment are presented in Fig.1.


The air envelope that surrounds the earth is called the atmosphere. Among the four major
elements of environment, the atmosphere is the most dynamic as changes take place in it
not only from one season to another but also over shorter periods of a few hours. Of the
total mass of the atmosphere, 99 per cent is within a height of 32 km from the earth’s
surface. It is to be noted that most of the atmospheric changes occur within this layer.
The atmosphere is held to the earth by the force of gravity. The atmosphere is an
important element of the environment. The layer of air acts as a blanket protecting the
earth from ultra-violet radiation and extremes of temperature. The differential heating of
the atmosphere by the sun’s rays produces circulation of air leading to winds, clouds and
precipitation. The variation in climatic conditions on the earth is responsible for diversity
in the distribution of plant and animal life.


The word lithosphere refers to the solid layers of rock material on the earth’s surface,
both on the continents and ocean floors. The lithosphere is composed of the crust and the
upper mantle. The average thickness of lithosphere is about 100 km. The crust is thicker
in the continents than on the ocean floors. The crustal layer is of lighter density
compared to the interior layers. As the crustal layer comprises of rocks rich in silica and
aluminium, it is called the sial layer. Below the sial layer lies the mantle which consists
of (a) Inner silicate or sima layer having materials rich in silica and magnesium, and (b)
transitional zone of mixed metals and silicates. The core of the earth consists of metals in
liquid or plastic state because of high temperature and pressure. The core of the earth has
a radius of about 3400 km. As nickel and iron are dominant in the core, it is called Nife.
This accounts for earth’s magnetism.


The hydrosphere refers to the layer of water on the surface of the earth in the form of
oceans, lakes, rivers and other waterbodies. Water covers 71 per cent of the total surface
area of the earth. Therefore, the earth is sometimes called a ‘watery planet’. Continents
may be considered as large islands rising from the vast oceans. Water occurs on the land
in the form of ice-sheets in polar regions and on high mountains. Water also occurs
below surface of the land in the form of underground water. Water occurs in the form of
water vapour in the lower layers of the atmosphere. Even plants and animals, including
man are predominantly made up of water. Of the total volume of water available, 97 per
cent is in the vast oceans, 2 per cent is stored in the form of ice-sheets and less than 1 per
cent is available as fresh water.


As already stated the biosphere is a unique element of the earth. The organisms
comprising the biosphere are mostly found in the relatively narrow zones of contact
between the atmosphere, lithosphere and hydrosphere. The plants and animals living on
the land are found in the zone of contact between the lithosphere and atmosphere.
Similarly, the zone of contact between land and sea is teeming with organisms living on
the shore and in the shallow sea water near the shore. In the open ocean, most of the
living organisms occur in the shallow surface waters exposed to the atmosphere and
Each organism in the biosphere has certain limiting physical conditions for its
survival and growth. This means that the types of plants and animals found in a region
are related to the prevailing physical environment. Each organism prefers a certain
environment. Each organism prefers a certain habitat. All organisms living in a
particular habitat are dependent on one another. Thus, all organisms in the biosphere not
only interact with the physical environment but also with one another. A study of these
interrelationships between the various life forms and their environment is the major
concern of the science of ecology.


The four spheres – atmosphere, lithosphere, hydrosphere and biosphere – interact

among themselves (Fig – 2). There are two kinds of interactions:
1. Interaction between man and environment
2. Interaction between other organisms and environment
There is a vital difference between these two interactions. The organisms adapt
themselves to the environments while man modifies environments to suit themselves.


Man is a part of the biosphere. In the early periods of human history, human
beings were just like any other animal being entirely dependent on the environment.
Food gathering, hunting and fishing could not sustain a large population. With the
development of agriculture food was available in abundance and permanent settlements
came into existence. Mining of coal, iron and other minerals heralded the Industrial
Revolution. These led to the increased production from fields and factories, and the
colonization of new landmasses. With the tools at his command, man became a master of
the environment. Man’s activities were aimed at satisfying his increasing needs from the
environment. With rapid increase in human population during the last 100 years, his
needs have increased enormously leading to an adverse impact on the physical and
biological environment. Environmental pollution has taken place on a large scale in
industrial and urban areas. These environmental changes pose a threat to survival of man
on the earth. Raw materials and energy are derived from the environment and useful
products are obtained by using “technology”. This process leads to production of wastes
which are returned to nature causing pollution. The integration of the four spheres of
environment and the technology is represented in Fig.3


The major deleterious human influence on the environment is the pollution of water, air
and land. The major pollution processes are interrelated as depicted in fig.4. An example
explaining the pollution processes would be the solid waste dump resulting in
degradation in soil characteristics, ground water quality and surface water quality through
the leachate. It also causes air pollution through the emission of gases like methane.

Air Pollution

Land Pollution

Ground water

Fig.4. Pollution Processes

There is an urgent need for protecting the environment from which man derives
his food and other resources. An understanding of the processes which take place in the
environment is necessary so that man’s activities are reorganized in such a manner so as
not to interfere with the environment. Man has to learn to live in perfect harmony with
the physical and biological environment so that the earth continues to be habitable for
future generations as well.

As already stated, there are two kinds of interactions:

1. Interaction between man and environment
2. Interaction between other organisms and environment

There is a vital difference between these two interactions. The organisms adapt
themselves to the environments while man modifies environments to suit themselves.

DELETERIOUS HUMAN INFLUENCE. As long as humans have inhabited the

Earth, their presence has caused modifications in the resources and processes of the
Earth, often in an undesirable way. The human race itself is a major geologic agent, and
virtually all civilizations have influenced their geologic habitats and variously depleted
their earth resources. The earliest, and in some ways the best, work on the subject of
human influence on the geologic surroundings was by G.P. Marsh. His classic work was
largely ignored by geologists, who were more concerned with utilization of the Earth’s
surface along with its mineral and water resources. Thus, the long-term impacts of
human activities on land forms, erosion and sedimentation rates, the quantity of surface
water and subsurface water and mineral resources, soil and groundwater quality, climate,
and the size of deserts and prairies are only now beings systematically analyzed.

Desertification. Humans have long had enormous impact on the rates of natural
geologic processes, although in the span of existence of individuals the human impacts
have often not been noticed. Marsh showed that deforestation (Fig.3), overtilling (Fig.4),
overgrazing, improper irrigation practices, and burning of grasslands are responsible for
much of the world’s deserts, grasslands, and parklands. M. Kassas estimates that of the
43% of the Earth that is vegetative desert area, 6.7% (an area about the size of Bbrazil)
may have been created by human activity. This is probably a minimum figure. See
Soil depletion. The human process of exhausting the land has a long history. For
instance, the salination of soils in lower Mesopotamia has been thoroughly documented
by archeologists, where wheat yields were profile in about 3500 B.C. but became
negligible by 1700 B.C. because of salination. Mute testimony of the pervasive nature of
such problems exists in the form of abandoned cities such as Ankor Wat in Thailand and
those on the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico. In the Mideast, the ancient city mounds and
tells are found in areas where agriculture is no longer possible, depletion of soil
nutrients, erosion, and salination caused by poor agricultural practices made it more
difficult for the ancient civilizations to produce sufficient food nearby. This, coupled
with expanding populations and extended primitive transportation lines, must have
created enormous logistic problems and must have contributed significantly to the demise
of these cultures. See AGRICULTURAL GEOGRAPHY.
In recent years, the processes of deleterious modification of the earth by human
activities have probably accelerated because of expanded human population coupled with
the sudden increases in the cost of energy. High energy process have placed multiple
pressures on the land because the poorer people of the world have been forced to cut
more timber for fuel while simultaneously not being able to afford as much fertilizer, the
cost of which is largely a function of energy prices. In addition llama and cattle dung
which formerly were returned to the land are now used to an ever greater extent for
cooking, thus, more land is being tilled to produce the same amount of food. The
multiple pressures are more rapidly expanding the uninhabitable areas of the Earth than at
any time in history. Virtually all of southern Asia, South and Central America, and Africa
are affected.
Climate modification. A subtle but possibly significant change that could alter the
rate of change of surficial processes is the increase of CO2 in the Earth’s atmosphere
because of the burning of such carbon compounds as coal, oil, and wood for energy.
Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has increased 10% in the 20 years that systematic
records have been kept, and could double by the year 2050. The feared result is a buildup
of heat-the so-called hothouse or greenhouse effect, which could radically alter climatic
processes by increasing worldwide temperatures by an average of 6°C. One major
possible impact is partial melting of ice sheets, a phenomenon which could easily raise
ocean water levels by 15 to 25 ft (4.6 to 7.6 m) and threaten vast coastal areas of the
world. The atmospheric heating could begin within the next few decades. See
Reversing the trend does not appear easy. Reduction of burning of fossil fuels is a
partial answer. But the burning of wood for fuel may be a far greater cause because
burning wood not only contributes directly to the CO2 from the air as a normal part of
plant growth (photosynthesis).
Waste disposal. The way in which civilization handle their wastes also influences
the nature of earth resources. The industrial nations, largely because of their wealth, have
been able to concentrate, and often treat, their waste materials (in contrast to less
developed nations, where wastes tend to be pervasive and untreated). However, the
results of concentrations may cause local problems. Such things as industrial waste and
ordinary garbage need to be disposed of. In addition, environmental treatment wastes
such as sludges from sewage and water treatment plants, sulfate sludges which result
from removing SO2 gas from burning sulfur-rich fuels, and fly ash from burning coal are
also disposal problems. The quality of surface and groundwaters may be adversely
influenced locally if the environmental controls are inadequate at disposal sites. See
Drinking water contamination. A large-scale problem is the introduction of blood
anoxia causing nitrate into the groundwater of large areas where the cattle concentrate or
where high nitrate fertilizers are improperly used. The natural geologic environment does
not readily take up excess nitrate, particularly where vegetation may be sparse as at cattle
feedlot areas. Thousands of wells in such areas as the American Midwest are known to
be contaminated. Nitrate contamination of drinking water may currently be a worldwide
problem, and may well have caused the sapping of the energy of the populations of some
ancient city states. However, systematically gathered information is not available for
Deforestation. As pointed out by E.P. Eckholm, the forests in virtually all of the
poorer countries of the world are in jeopardy and could all but disappear in the next few
decades in most of the Southern Hemisphere. In the absense of a radical reduction of
fossil-fuel prices, a reversal of the deforestation trend does not appear likely because the
alternatives of solar, wind, tidal, or geothermal energy are not generally practical. Even
water power is of limited value, largely because devegetation increases erosion rates and
causes reservoirs used for hydroelectric power generation to fill rapidly with debris. For
instance,, the Lower Anchicaya Reservoir in Columbia filled with erosion debris from
stripped steep slopes in just 7 years.

HUMAN BENEFICIAL INFLUENCES. In contrast to the less developed nations, the

industrial nations in less developed nations, the industrial nations in the past half century
have successfully reversed some of the major trends toward deleterious alteration of their
geological environments. The efficient production of food by the industrialized nations
because of the expanded use of fertilizer, agricultural lime, pesticides and herbicides has
allowed formerly needed for agriculture. The reduced erosion caused by revegetation and
good farming practice has greatly stabilized the physical environment (Fig.6). The
possibility of sustained yield from the Earth’s resources appears very likely for these
nations, especially in that their populations are also stabilizing. The continued high cost
of energy, however, will have an uncertain long-term effect.
Some wastes from human activities may be reused or may be put to other human
uses so that the wastes themselves may become resources. Recycling of metals or glass
is being done to a greater degree to conserve mineral resources. Somewhat similarly,
sewage treatment sludges may be used as soil supplements or sulfate sludges and fly ash
may be used as a component of construction materials.
Recovering minerals from the earth invariably affects the earth itself and,
improperly done, the influences may be deleterious. Contamination of waters by heavy
metals, iron, acidic sulfate, and mineral particles may result, and the landscape may be
left in a form which has little potential value. However, modern reclamation practices
involving the concepts of multiple land use may of ten—perhaps nearly always – leave
land in a form that is equal to or better than its state before minman purposes). Thus,
flatland suitable for agriculture or for construction may be created in hilly country;
recreational or scenic lakes, water storage, water spreading, or flood control sites may be
created; valuable underground space and needed space for waste disposal may be other
by-products of mineral extraction. Thus mining, properly done, may not only supply
important minerals but often creates environmental or economic values. Such values are
possible in well over three-quarters of the area which is disturbed by mining in the United
The physical environments – air, water, and earth—are tied closely with living
systems, including humans. These four environmental spheres have strong mutual
interactions with technology. These tie-ins are illustrated in Figure 1.1. A key aspect of
environmental science is the “interrelatedness” of things, the influence that one thing,
action, or change may have on another living organisms and the aspects of the
environment pertaining directly to them are called biotic, and other portions of the
environment are abiotic.
There are strong interactions among living organisms and the various spheres of
the abiotic environment. To a large extent these are best described by cycles of matter
that involve biological, chemical, and geological processes and phenomena. Such cycles
are called biogeochemical cycles.
Ecology is the science that deals with the relationships between living organisms with
their physical environment and with each other3. Ecology can be approached from the
viewpoints of (I) the environment and the demands it places on the organisms in it or (2)
organisms and how they adapt to their environmental conditions. An ecosystem consists
of an assembly of mutually interacting organisms and their environment in which
materials are interchanged in a largely cyclical manner. An ecosystem has physical,
chemical, and biological components along with energy sources and pathways of energy
and materials interchange.
An understanding of ecology is essential in the management of modern
industrialized societies in ways that are compatible with environmental preservation and
enhancement. The branch of ecology that deals with predicting the impacts of
technology and development and making recommendations such that these activities will
have minimum adverse impacts, or even positive impacts, on ecosystems may be termed
applied ecology.
General Discussion
All types of pollution have direct or indirect effects on ground soil properties. For
example, rain falling on a garbage dump will pollute both surface water and groundwater
systems. The polluted water will attack foundation structures such as footings, caissons,
piles, and sheet pilings. If the polluted water is used for mixing concrete, it will affect the
workability and durability of the concrete. In embankment construction, the moisture-
density relationship of soil will also be affected. On the other hand, the evaporation from
surface water evapotranspiration from ground surface both enter into the biosphere and
atmosphere. The percolation from rainwater into ground soil due to sorbed ions and the
sorption processes will cause some soil solution to leach into drainage systems or will
evaporate into the air. Figure 1.7 presents the effects of air-water-ground (land)
pollutions on the engineering behavior of construction materials.
The pollution cycles are not isolated but rather closely related. The pollution
problems cannot be solved without considering all interrelated aspects. Unfortunately,
present emphasis is placed in water and air pollution with very little concern for ground
soil pollution. Figure 1.8 shows the extent of current activities on three major pollution
research areas. These three activities must take place simultaneously and must be equally