You could play a vital role in protecting the planet, says Dr Crispin Halsall

Did you know that 2005 was the worst year for natural disasters on record? Whether it's Hurricane Katrina flooding New Orleans or this summer's water shortages in the south of England, the environment seems to be always in the news.

The 21st century has seen a growing concern over global warming, with melting polar ice caps expected to raise sea levels and flood low lying areas. Climate change affects us all - but if you think you can't do anything to help, think again. By becoming an environmental scientist, you can play a vital role in helping manage changes to the environment.

You may be assessing flood risk where homes are to be built, carrying out site investigations and soil sampling for councils or businesses, or acting as an environmental advisor to the Government.

You could even find yourself involved in cleaning up contaminated land to get ready for the London Olympics.

Environmental science is a combination of geology, geography, physics, chemistry and biology and their application to the world around us. You could be studying soil erosion, soil and water pollution, air quality, radioactivity, climatology and vulcanology.

The course is very hands-on, with laboratory classes, computer-based sessions or field trips. You could be sampling water in Lake Windermere, measuring air pollution in the French Alps or even studying a volcano in Japan!

At some universities and colleges, you also get the chance to study abroad - which could see you spending your second year in an American, Canadian or Australasian university.

With the environment creeping up the agenda, there is likely to be a shortage of environmental scientists in the future, so employment prospects are good.

A generation ago there were only a handful. Now there are 170,000 people employed in this sector, which has an annual turnover of £16bn.

The range of jobs is wide, whether working for the Environment Agency, councils, the Government or increasingly as a consultant to private firms. With more and more environmental legislation, blue chip companies also need scientists to scrutinise their activities to make sure they are operating within the law.

The working day at a local council would be office hours but at the Environment Agency, you could be on standby at weekends if there's a risk of flooding or a fire at an oil depot.

The starting salary ranges from £15k to £20k but if you want to earn big bucks, you could always choose to take your computer modelling skills to the City, where you would be forecasting financial risk instead of flood risk.

A concern for the environment is a must for this subject but you also need to be motivated and enthusiastic.

You usually only need one or more sciences at A-level or equivalent, including geography or psychology, to join an environmental science degree course. Students who don't have any science qualifications apart from GCSE are also sometimes considered.

Related undergraduate degrees come with all sorts of different names, such as earth environmental chemistry and earth science. Read prospectuses and find out course details before making your choice.

A varied mix

Jemma Goodwin, 20, is a second year student of BSc environmental science at Lancaster University. She studied her A-levels at Newcastle-under-Lyme School, gaining qualifications in chemistry (C), biology (B), geography (A) and general studies (A). Goodwin also has an AS-level in history (B)

"I like Lancaster because it's near the Lake District, Morecambe Bay and the Yorkshire Lakes so it's ideal for field trips - everything is on your doorstep. I also wanted to go away for the year and Lancaster has an exchange programme where you can do a year abroad. I went to the University of Colorado in the US. It was really good. We did a lot of geology up in the mountains. All my grades from America will count towards my degree here, so it doesn't cost as much because you don't have to do an extra year just to go abroad.

Environmental science is so varied with a mixture of everything. I love the fieldwork especially."

Which Course magazine is now available online at Contact Joshua Gilbert - tel: 020 7005 2283; fax: 020 7005 2292.