A Smart Look at Natural Resources

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Map of the world on a wood surface

One of the most rewarding aspects of being a civil engineer is the opportunity to improve our use of natural resources by identifying and resolving environmental problems.

In the past, some key innovations within this industry have directly involved utilizing natural resources (e.g. hydroelectric dams, water treatment systems). Yet in present-day society, civil engineers are now being asked to not only develop high-quality methods for using natural resources but to also create ways to protect these resources from contamination. Some contaminants that are new concerns related to an overgrowth of bacteria, climate change, and the release of specialty products and chemicals.

Algae Blooms

Algae blooms are defined as a massive increase in the amount of algae in a particular water system. Algae blooms are notably dangerous to aquatic ecosystems because when the algae inevitably die, bacteria that ingest the degrading biomass consume the dissolved oxygen in water, which often leads to anaerobic conditions. This makes it difficult for fish and other aquatic species to survive as oxygen becomes increasingly limited.

Furthermore, algae blooms are also dangerous to local inhabitants due to specific species of algae naturally creating neurotoxins. If such algae inhabit water systems that are used for drinking, there can be extremely detrimental effects to both humans and animals.

As of late, algae blooms have been occurring with increasing frequency and civil engineers are struggling to find adequate solutions. The process is well understood, increased nutrients released to the water leads to increased algae growth; however, the recent rapid increase in algae bloom frequency and intensity is not well understood. Factors including new sources of nutrient pollution, a changing climate, and the spreading of invasive algae species potentially all play a role. Engineers are continuing to investigate cyanobacteria, especially their ecology, in order to solve the mystery of what it is behind their increasing growth.

Climate Change

Another key area for civil engineers involves the prevention of greenhouse gas emissions, as well as coping with the consequences thereof.

The world has been too slow to reduce our massive amount of greenhouse gas emissions, which has left us dealing with a myriad of consequences like sea level rise, droughts and an increase of extreme weather and overall temperatures.

To help us cope with these consequences, engineers have established a variety of methods and technologies that allow us to utilize the natural resources that we have. For example, engineers have recently been implementing point-of-use water treatment methodology, which personalizes the water treatment process so that the obtained water is fit for its particular purpose of use. Furthermore, civil engineers are also working on finding adequate drinking water supplies in increasingly dry regions like California, as well as designing and building infrastructures that aid in managing increased flooding from extreme storms.

Emerging Contaminants in Rivers

As our detection methods have improved, scientists have been finding a concerning amount of contaminants in rivers and lakes. Many of these contaminants are chemicals or other elements that can be extremely detrimental to humans and aquatic life. Some of the most common emerging contaminants are

  • Persistent organic pollutants (POPs) – pesticides, industrial chemicals
  • Pharmaceutical and personal care products – fragrances, antibiotics, detergents, micro beads from body wash, cosmetics
  • Endocrine-disrupting chemicals – synthetic hormones like estrogens or androgens, caffeine, alcohol
  • Nanomaterials – carbon nanotubes, damaging nanoparticles found in sunscreens, cosmetics, paints

Researchers have found an increasing amount of endocrine-disrupting impacts in fish and amphibians. Some of these effects include intersex characteristics, a decrease in the amount of sperm in males, and an impairment in females’ ovarian function.

To help combat emerging contaminants in rivers, engineers have been sampling and treating river waters. Sampling becomes particularly important to the identification and awareness process, for through it researchers are able to acquire direct insights into what contaminants are in a particular body of water. Looking towards the future, engineers are seeking to develop ways to prevent the release of these contaminants or decontaminate water bodies in an efficient and environmentally friendly manner.

As noted, there are a variety of environmental concerns relating to America’s natural resources. Whether dealing with algae blooms, effects of climate change, or emerging contaminants in waters, engineers have long been implementing and developing new methods and technologies to help mitigate many of these concerns. And having been successful in the past, civil engineers are confident that progress will continue. But when it comes to environmental concerns, it often is not solely a science issue, but a social one as well. Therefore, it is important that our entire society works together as a whole to develop more environmentally friendly methods for living in the 21st century.

Learn More

For more than a century, Ohio University’s Russ College of Engineering and Technology has been teaching engineers how to create for good – how to engineer a better future with responsible and sustainable design. Learn more about our online Master of Science in Civil Engineering program and master how to effectively supervise, plan, design, construct, and operate the infrastructures essential to connect the modern world.

Additional Reading

Climate Change and Human Health: Statistics, Risks, and Resources
An Engineer’s Guide to Building Climate Change-Resilient Infrastructure
Six New Approaches to Green Building Design


Science Daily, Algal bloom
Raeng.org.uk, “Engineering the Future”
Oars 3 Rivers, “Emerging Contaminants and Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals”