3 Types of Environmental Degradation Explained

Types of environmental degradation are air, water and soil degradation. These three components make up the natural environment, and can be separately affected by degradation.

In this article, the types of environmental degradation are discussed, as outlined below;

Air Degradation as one of the Types of Environmental Degradation

Water Degradation as one of the Types of Environmental Degradation

Soil Degradation as one of the Types of Environmental Degradation






1). Air Degradation as one of the Types of Environmental Degradation

Air degradation is the reduction of air quality as a result of natural or human-induced factors.

A broader term used for this type of environmental degradation is atmospheric degradation.

Atmospheric degradation is environmental degradation that affects the atmospheric and gaseous components of the environment. It may occur in the form of oxygen deficiency, air pollution, or ozone layer depletion.

Oxygen deficiency is usually a result of excessive oxygen demand. This excessive demand can come from biological or chemical factors, such as living organisms and aerobic reactions.

Some processes that lead to oxygen deficiency include biodegradation, deforestation and overpopulation. These processes deplete atmospheric oxygen, and eliminate sources of replenishment like vegetation.

Oxygen deficiency is a form of atmospheric degradation because it represents a loss of an important natural resource.

Air pollution is the introduction of potentially harmful materials into the air, which may lead to environmental degradation [11].  

The effects of air pollution can affect the environment, the ecosystem, and human health. Some of these effects are global warming, climate change, and heatwaves.

Air pollutants are released as a by-product of activities in the industrial, commercial, transport and energy sectors, among others.

These pollutants include carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, particulate matter, organic compounds, and nitrous oxide.

air pollution, air degradation, environmental degradation
Air Pollution as A Type of Environmental Degradation (Credit: Hamid Vakili 2019 .CC BY 4.0.)


Carbon monoxide (CO) is a product of the incomplete combustion of fossil fuels [14]. It has a high affinity to oxygen and can easily bind with hemoglobin molecules in blood.

An excessive concentration of carbon monoxide in blood can limit the supply of oxygen to body cells, which can have fatal consequences [16].

Carbon dioxide (CO2) is another gas which can cause air pollution, when produced in excessive amounts. This is mainly because it is a greenhouse gas, and contributes to global warming [6].

Excessive atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide can also cause ocean acidity [3].

Sulfur dioxide (SO2) occurs as a colorless, odorous and reactive gas [18]. This air pollutant is usually produced from the burning of sulfur or sulfur-containing materials like fossil fuels.

When released into the atmosphere, sulfur dioxide is a poisonous gas, which poses a threat to human health and the entire ecosystem.

In addition to being a major cause of acid rain, sulfur dioxide can convert to sulfate in the atmosphere, which is a major component of particulate matter.

Particulate matter (PM) may occur in the form of soot/carbon black, dust, and ash, among others.

These particles are released from various processes including cement production, construction, mining and exploration, and volcanic eruption.

Particulate matter is a hazardous pollutant because it can lead to health problems when inhaled [7]. It can also cause poor visibility.

Organic compounds can act as air pollutants when released into the atmosphere, due to their toxic and persistent characteristics [12].

Many of these compounds are produced during the combustion of fossil fuels, although others are derived from manufactured products like aerosol sprays. Organic compounds can attack the ozone layer, thereby contributing to global warming.

Nitrous oxide (N2O) is a pungent greenhouse gas that occurs as a reddish-brown haze when released into the atmosphere.

It is produced primarily from combustion [4], and contributes to ground-level ozone pollution [9].

Nitrous oxide can also cause health problems when inhaled, and has an acidic effect on the environment.

Ozone layer depletion is another atmospheric form of environmental degradation.

It occurs when molecules of ozone (O3) in the stratosphere are broken down. A major cause of ozone layer depletion is Chlorofluorocarbon (CFC); which is the term used to refer to a man-made organic compound composed of carbon, chlorine and fluorine.

This compound, as well as other  ozone-depleting substances, cause environmental degradation when they break down ozone molecules in the atmosphere, because the ozone layer acts as a protective cover to limit the Earth’s exposure to potentially-harmful ultraviolet radiation [21].


2). Water Degradation as one of the Types of Environmental Degradation

Water degradation is the decline in availability or quality of water, due to contamination, pollution or over-abstraction. Causes of water degradation include human activities, biochemical processes and microbial infestation.

As a type of environmental degradation, water degradation can be discussed mainly in terms of pollution.

Water pollution is any unfavorable change in the physicochemical or biological attributes of water [5]. It is often a result of human activities, and may occur in various forms.

These forms (of water pollution) include eutrophication, sewage infiltration, saline water intrusion, leachate pollution, microbial pollution, and municipal waste pollution.

water pollution, water degradation, environmental degradation
Water Pollution as A Type of Environmental Degradation (Credit: Adityamadhav83 2013 .CC BY-SA 4.0.)


Eutrophication is a form of water pollution and environmental degradation, whereby an excessive amount of nutrients in water bodies, facilitates the occurrence of potentially harmful biochemical and biological processes that can harm both the aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems.

Another way to describe eutrophication, is as an overabundance of nutrients in water [2].

The nutrients that cause eutrophication may come from human-induced pollution, such as the flow of agricultural fertilizers into water bodies, and improper disposal of chemical waste.

These nutrients include nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus.

Eutrophication causes unfavorable biological and biochemical processes like inefficient microbial biodegradation, excessive plant growth, high biological/biochemical oxygen demand, and growth of harmful algal blooms.

Such processes render the water unsuitable for domestic use, and can cause the death of aquatic organisms.

Sewage Infiltration is a form of water pollution whereby significant amounts of organic waste matter (like human excrement), are introduced into water bodies.

Sewage infiltration is more common in underdeveloped or overpopulated regions where adequate and effective plumbing and sewage treatment facilities are not available.

Water pollution by sewage, is a hazardous type of environmental degradation, for various reasons.

One of these reasons is the fact that sewage carries pathogenic microorganisms that can affect the health of humans, wildlife and ecosystems [19].

Some health problems associated with sewage pollution are dysentery, cholera and typhoid [23].

Other potential effects of this type of environmental degradation are eutrophication, excessive microbial activity, high oxygen demand, oxygen deficiency, and death of aquatic animals.

Saline water intrusion is the upstream migration of saline or brackish water into freshwater bodies, thereby reducing the amount of freshwater available.

Saline water intrusion is a form of environmental degradation because it involves the contamination of freshwater bodies by saltwater [15]. This makes the water unsuitable for drinking, as well as a number of other uses.

Studies have shown that saline water intrusion is most common in freshwater aquifers that occur in coastal regions [1].

It is also facilitated by other environmental factors like climate change and sea level rise [22].

The chemical composition of saltwater also causes some unfavorable biochemical reactions that can further degrade the quality of water.

Leachate pollution is the influx of leachate into soil or water [17].

By definition; leachate itself is a liquid produced from the decomposition of soil waste, and which is highly concentrated in various elements and compounds such as heavy metals and sulfates [13].

Leachate pollution is commonly associated with landfill sites. When waste is not effectively managed in such sites, leachate fluid can be introduced into groundwater by percolation through soil.

In addition to environmental degradation, leachate pollution is associated with abdominal problems, and cancer, in humans [8].

Microbial infestation and municipal waste pollution are related to other forms of environmental degradation that have been discussed.

Microbial infestation of surface water bodies an aquifers can occur either naturally or as a result of human activities.

While microbes are needed in order to ensure the sustainability of aquatic ecosystems [20], an excessively-large microbial population in water can cause various problems.

One of this is pollution by toxins produced by microbes such as pathogenic bacteria. Also, microbes can increase the biological oxygen demand (BOD) of water, thereby reducing its quality.

Human activities like indiscriminate waste disposal can facilitate microbial water pollution, as the microbes may derive nutrients through the biodegradation of these wastes, causing them to grow and multiply outrageously.

Municipal waste pollution can affect water by introducing solid wastes into water bodies.

The synthetic (non-biodegradable) component of this waste can clog the waterways, limiting flow, and providing suitable conditions for the breeding of disease vectors like mosquitoes.

Breakdown of biodegradable municipal waste in water, can cause hazardous microbial growth, toxin production, and eutrophication.


3). Soil Degradation as one of the Types of Environmental Degradation

Also known as land degradation; soil degradation is the reduction of the quality of soil or land, as a result of natural and man-made processes like erosion, earthquake, avalanche, volcanic eruption, desertification, and pollution.

Erosion, earthquakes and avalanches, all degrade land by altering the topographic structure. This can reduce the value of the land, and render it unsuitable for building and agriculture, among other uses.

Erosion and desertification can leach soil nutrients, resulting in degradation.

Soil pollution is the introduction of toxic materials into soil, as a result of processes and activities like mining, oil and gas exploration, agriculture, and waste disposal.

Mining and quarrying activities can alter the landscape significantly [10]. This can reduce the value of the land after mining operations have ceased.

Waste materials from mines, if not properly disposed of, may be hazardous.

environmental degradation, mining
Mining as A Cause of Environmental Degradation (Credit: Tennen-Gas 2007 .CC BY-SA 3.0.)


Oil and gas exploration may cause soil pollution and environmental degradation through oil spillage and poor remediation practices.

In agriculture, fertilizer, herbicide and pesticide usage can cause soil pollution. This is especially the case when excessive amounts of the chemicals are applied.

Indiscriminate waste disposal introduces toxins into the soil, which may cause pollution and degradation. Such toxins may include asbestos, arsenic, cyanide, chromium, and biphenyls.



Types of environmental degradation are atmospheric degradation, water degradation and soil/land degradation.

Atmospheric degradation involves the pollution or unfavorable alteration of the atmosphere. It can be also referred to as air degradation, and includes pollution, ozone layer depletion, and oxygen deficiency.

Water degradation is the decline in quality or availability of water. This type of environmental degradation can occur in the form of sewage pollution, saltwater infiltration, and leachate contamination, among others.

Soil degradation is a type of environmental degradation whereby soil or land is altered in an unfavorable manner that reduces its value.

Erosion, earthquake, landslides, volcanic eruption, oil spillage and mining-related degradation are all examples of soil/land degradation.

The causes of environmental degradation are mostly anthropogenic (man-made/human-induced) although some natural causes exist as well.



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