In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Environmental Physics

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Properties and Transport of Gases and Liquids

Environmental Science Environmental Physics
Michael H. Unsworth
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 June 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 June 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199363445-0075


In this article, environmental physics is defined as the branch of physics concerned with the measurement and analysis of interactions between organisms and their environment. Most commonly, the organisms are plants and animals, and the environment is the atmospheric or soil environment in which they are surrounded. The term physics is derived from the Greek word meaning “knowledge of nature.” Its precursor, natural philosophy, dating back to the ancient Greeks, involved quantitative reasoning and explanations of natural processes. University departments of natural philosophy existed until well into the 20th century (e.g., at the University of Edinburgh, this author’s alma mater), so environmental physics has a well-established ancient heritage. Physics uses observations, experiments, and mathematical analyses to find quantitative physical laws that apply at all scales. The study of environmental physics requires an understanding of (mostly) classical physics but frequently also draws on knowledge of environmental physiology, that is, how living organisms function and respond to the environment. Environmental physics is often concerned with analyzing interactions in which the environment modifies an organism’s responses, and those responses modify the surrounding environment through feedback processes. Consequently, progress in environmental physics is often made through collaboration between physicists, biologists, atmospheric scientists, and soil scientists.

General Overviews

An environmental physicist needs a sound understanding of basic physics, particularly the properties of matter, heat and thermodynamics, and fluid dynamics. A standard reference text providing a good grounding is Walker, et al. 2014 (first published by Resnick and Halliday in 1960). Several books provide an overview of land–atmosphere interactions with relatively light treatment of the underlying physics. The classic The Climate near the Ground by Rudolph Geiger was first published in German in the 1920s; an updated English translation is Geiger, et al. 2009. Oke 1987 is a well-established review of boundary layer climatology and includes discussion of urban environments. Monteith’s Principles of Environmental Physics, first published in 1973 (4th edition Monteith and Unsworth 2013) most closely covers the topics included in this review. Environmental Biophysics (Campbell and Norman 1998) covers similar topics in less detail but includes more on soil physics, carbon assimilation, and remote sensing techniques. A treatment with a stronger biological perspective is Plants and Microclimate (Jones 2014). More specialized books include Principles of Terrestrial Ecosystem Ecology (Chapin, et al. 2012), Terrestrial Biosphere-Atmosphere Fluxes (Monson and Baldocchi 2014), and Introduction to Environmental Soil Physics (Hillel 2004)

  • Campbell, G. S., and J. M. Norman. 1998. Environmental biophysics. New York: Springer-Verlag.

    Comprehensive introduction. This second edition expands on remote sensing and carbon assimilation. Less detailed and fewer references than Monteith’s book and uses units less familiar to physicists and engineers. Many worked examples and problems.

  • Chapin, F. S. I., P. A. Matson, and P. M. Vitousek. 2012. Principles of terrestrial ecosystem ecology. New York: Springer.

    Thorough review of physical, chemical, and biological aspects.

  • Geiger, R., R. H. Aron, P. Todhunter. 2009. The climate near the ground. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

    Recent reprinting of a classic. Many fascinating examples from microclimatology. Relatively unsophisticated analysis.

  • Hillel, D. 2004. Introduction to environmental soil physics. Amsterdam: Elsevier.

    Excellent review of mostly physical aspects of soil science.

  • Jones, H. G. 2014. Plants and microclimate: A quantitative approach to environmental plant physiology. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    Updated version of a well-respected book that brings together physiological principles and environmental physics. Highly recommended as a text for biology students.

  • Monson, R., and D. Baldocchi. 2014. Terrestrial biosphere-atmosphere fluxes. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9781139629218

    A substantial book with a wide scope by two experts in flux measurement.

  • Monteith, J. L., and M. H. Unsworth. 2013. Principles of environmental physics. Oxford: Academic Press.

    Fourth edition of Monteith’s 1973 classic that introduced the subject to many. Strong on physical principles—relatively light on physiology. Contains worked examples, problem sets, and substantial section of references.

  • Oke, T. R. 1987. Boundary layer climates. New York: Methuen.

    Fills an important niche for microclimatologists and geographers that brings Geiger’s approach up to date.

  • Walker, J., R. Resnick, and D. Halliday. 2014. Fundamentals of physics. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley.

    Respected physics text book. Useful for reference.

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