Using Physics to Study the Earth's Environment

Instructor: David Wood

David has taught Honors Physics, AP Physics, IB Physics and general science courses. He has a Masters in Education, and a Bachelors in Physics.

Learn how we use physics to study the Earth's environment. This includes the theories that help us explain what we see, and the physics equipment we use to collect data. See what data you've collected by taking a quiz.

Why Study the Environment?

The environment is the natural world. With toxic chemicals, spacecraft, and nuclear bombs, humans seem to be moving further and further away from what could be called 'natural' every day. So why should we study the environment?

Well, for one thing, like it or not, humans live in the environment. We still live on planet Earth, and the state of the planet has a direct effect on us. Perhaps the value of plants and animals isn't important to you, but as long as humans live here, there is reason to study the environment.

We rely on the natural world for many aspects of our lives. We rely on the environment to stay at approximately the same temperature so that we can continue to live on the planet. We rely on the environment to provide fresh water through rain and rock filtering. We rely on the rain forest for medicines and chemicals to make everything from shampoos to antibiotics. We rely on bacteria to give us fertile soil in which we can grow our crops. We are connected to the Earth and the environment in ways many people simply don't think about.

So understanding that environment means understanding ourselves. And when that environment changes, it can spell disaster for humans and wildlife alike. By observing the environment, we've found out about climate change, which, if left unchecked, could completely change human society over the coming decades.

Using Physics to Study the Environment

The data we've used to study climate change wouldn't be possible without high-tech instruments, and many of those instruments were invented by physicists. We use physics to analyze the contents of the atmosphere, to figure out how the sun's radiation interacts with gases in our atmosphere, to measure the heat inputs and outputs from space, and to predict the weather.

Although there are lots of examples, today we're going to talk about a few of the most important ways we use physics to study the environment.

Remote Sensing

Remote sensing equipment is anything that allows us to take measurements from a distance. This usually means measurements taken by aircraft or satellites in space. Even something as simple as photography from space counts as remote sensing, but it can get quite a bit more involved than that. A camera is a passive sensor because all we're doing is absorbing light that was already there. But physics instruments get more powerful when we use active sensors, or sensors that send out light.

By bouncing laser light off the Earth and atmosphere, we can gather a lot of data. We can find out the height of land or sea beds, create detailed 3D images of cloud formations, detect molecules in the atmosphere, and find out water speeds and directions.

Remote Sensing Satellite
Remote Sensing Satellite

Remote sensing has also allowed us to directly measure the heat being produced by the Earth using infrared satellites, and confirm with actual data that the Earth is indeed absorbing more heat than it is emitting--further evidence for climate change. It's also how we measure the thickness and size of the Earth's ice sheets year by year.

Fluid Dynamics & Atmospheric Absorption

Physics principles are also used to predict and explain what happens in our atmosphere and seas. We can look at ocean currents and use physics principles of temperature, density and pressure to explain why they move the way they do. We can look at the way warm and cool fronts move in the atmosphere, and use our physics knowledge to better predict the weather.

Fluid Dynamics Model of a Hurricane
Fluid Dynamics Model of a Hurricane

Physics allows us to predict what will happen when we change the gases in the atmosphere. We currently believe that the climate change we're seeing is caused by humans, but the idea that such a thing is possible was first suggested by a physicist in the early 19th century. The physics of how greenhouse gases absorb the energy emitted by the ground and stop it from easily escaping has been understood for a very long time indeed. The laws of physics tell us it simply has to be that way.


Have you ever wondered how we know what gases are present in different parts of the atmosphere? Or how old a sample of dead tree is? Or whether certain toxic chemicals were absorbed by nearby plants and animals?

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