Physical geography

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True-color image of the Earth's surface and atmosphere.

Physical geography (also known as geosystems or physiography) is one of the three major subfields of geography[1], as opposed to the cultural or built environment, the domain of human geography. Within the body of physical geography, the Earth is often split either into several spheres or environments, the main spheres being the atmosphere, biosphere, cryosphere, geosphere, hydrosphere, lithosphere and pedosphere. Research in physical geography is often interdisciplinary and uses the systems approach.

Physical geography is that branch of science which deals with the study of processes and patterns in the natural environment like atmosphere, biosphere and geosphere.

Fields of physical geography

A natural arch.
  • Geomorphology is the science concerned with understanding the surface of the Earth and the processes by which it is shaped, both at the present as well as in the past. Geomorphology as a field has several sub-fields that deal with the specific landforms of various environments e.g. desert geomorphology and fluvial geomorphology, however, these sub-fields are united by the core processes which cause them; mainly tectonic or climatic processes. Geomorphology seeks to understand landform history and dynamics, and predict future changes through a combination of field observation, physical experiment, and numerical modeling (Geomorphometry). Early studies in geomorphology are the foundation for pedology, one of two main branches of soil science.
Meander formation.
  • Hydrology is predominantly concerned with the amounts and quality of water moving and accumulating on the land surface and in the soils and rocks near the surface and is typified by the hydrological cycle. Thus the field encompasses water in rivers, lakes, aquifers and to an extent glaciers, in which the field examines the process and dynamics involved in these bodies of water. Hydrology has historically had an important connection with engineering and has thus developed a largely quantitative method in its research; however, it does have an earth science side that embraces the systems approach. Similar to most fields of physical geography it has sub-fields that examine the specific bodies of water or their interaction with other spheres e.g. limnology and ecohydrology.
Alpine glacier.
  • Glaciology is the study of glaciers and ice sheets, or more commonly the cryosphere or ice and phenomena that involve ice. Glaciology groups the latter (ice sheets) as continental glaciers and the former (glaciers) as alpine glaciers. Although, research in the areas are similar with research undertaken into both the dynamics of ice sheets and glaciers the latter tends to be concerned with the interaction of ice sheets with the present climate and the latter with the impact of glaciers on the landscape. Glaciology also has a vast array of sub-fields examining the factors and processes involved in ice sheets and glaciers e.g. snow hydrology and glacial geology.

  • Biogeography is the science which deals with geographic patterns of species distribution and the processes that result in these patterns. Biogeography emerged as a field of study as a result of the work of Alfred Russel Wallace, although the field prior to the late twentieth century had largely been viewed as historic in its outlook and descriptive in its approach. The main stimulus for the field since its founding has been that of evolution, plate tectonics and the theory of island biogeography. The field can largely be divided into five sub-fields: island biogeography, paleobiogeography, phylogeography, zoogeography and phytogeography
Climate trends.
  • Climatology is the study of the climate, scientifically defined as weather conditions averaged over a long period of time. It differs from meteorology, which studies atmospheric processes over a shorter duration, which are then examined by climatologists to find trends and frequencies in weather patterns/phenomena. Climatology examines both the nature of micro (local) and macro (global) climates and the natural and anthropogenic influences on them. The field is also sub-divided largely into the climates of various regions and the study of specific phenomena or time periods e.g. tropical cyclone rainfall climatology and paleoclimatology.
Nitrogen cycle.
  • Pedology (soil study) is the study of soils in its natural environment. It is one of two main branches of soil science, the other being edaphology. Pedology mainly deals with pedogenesis, soil morphology, soil classification. In physical geography pedology is largely studied due to the numerous interactions between climate (water, air, temperature), soil life (micro-organisms, plants, animals), the mineral materials within soils (biogeochemical cycles) and its position and effects on the landscape such as laterization.
  • Palaeogeography is the study of the distribution of the continents through geologic time through examining the preserved material in the stratigraphic record. Palaeogeography is a cross-discipline, almost all the evidence for the positions of the continents comes from geology in the form of fossils or geophysics the use of this data has resulted in evidence for continental drift, plate tectonics and supercontinents this in turn has supported palaeogeographic theories such as the Wilson cycle.
High-energy coastline.
  • Coastal geography is the study of the dynamic interface between the ocean and the land, incorporating both the physical geography (i.e coastal geomorphology, geology and oceanography) and the human geography of the coast. It involves an understanding of coastal weathering processes, particularly wave action, sediment movement and weathering, and also the ways in which humans interact with the coast. Coastal geography although predominantly geomorphological in its research is not just concerned with coastal landforms, but also the causes and influences of sea level change.
Thermohaline circulation.
  • Oceanography is the branch of physical geography that studies the Earth's oceans and seas. It covers a wide range of topics, including marine organisms and ecosystem dynamics (biological oceanography); ocean currents, waves, and geophysical fluid dynamics (physical oceanography); plate tectonics and the geology of the sea floor (geological oceanography); and fluxes of various chemical substances and physical properties within the ocean and across its boundaries (chemical oceanography). These diverse topics reflect multiple disciplines that oceanographers blend to further knowledge of the world ocean and understanding of processes within it.
  • Quaternary science is an inter-disciplinary field of study focusing on the Quaternary period, which encompasses the last 2.6 million years. The field studies the last ice age and the recent interstadial the Holocene and uses proxy evidence to reconstruct the past environments during this period to infer the climatic and environmental changes that have occurred.
Habitat fragmentation.
  • Ecology is a sub-discipline of ecology and geography that address how spatial variation in the landscape affects ecological processes such as the distribution and flow of energy, materials and individuals in the environment (which, in turn, may influence the distribution of landscape "elements" themselves such as hedgerows). The field was largely founded by the German geographer Carl Troll Landscape ecology typically deals with problems in an applied and holistic context. The main difference between biogeography and landscape ecology is that the latter is concerned with how flows or energy and material are changed and their impacts on the landscape whereas the former is concerned with the spatial patterns of species and chemical cycles.
  • Geomatics is the field of gathering, storing, processing, and delivering of geographic information, or spatially referenced information. Geomatrics includes geodesy (scientific discipline that deals with the measurement and representation of the earth, its gravitational field, and other geodynamic phenomena, such as crustal motion, oceanic tides, and polar motion) and G.I.S. (a system for capturing, storing, analyzing and managing data and associated attributes which are spatially referenced to the earth) and remote sensing (the short or large-scale acquisition of information of an object or phenomenon, by the use of either recording or real-time sensing device(s) that is not in physical or intimate contact with the object).
  • Environmental geography is a branch of geography that describes the spatial aspects of interactions between humans and the natural world. The branch bridges the divide between human and physical geography and thus requires an understanding of the dynamics of geology, meteorology, hydrology, biogeography, and geomorphology, as well as the ways in which human societies conceptualize the environment. Although the branch was previously more visible in research than at present with theories such as environmental determinism linking society with the environment. It has largely become the domain of the study of environmental management or anthropogenic influences on the environment and vice a versa.

Physical geography literature

Physical geography and Earth Science journals communicate and document the results of research carried out in universities and various other research institutions. Most journals cover a specific field and publish the research within that field, however unlike human geographers, physical geographers tend to publish in inter-disciplinary journals rather than predominantly geography journal; the research is normally expressed in the form of a scientific paper. Additionally, textbooks books and magazines on geography communicate research to laypeople, although these tend to focus on environmental issues or cultural dilemmas. Examples of journals that publish articles from physical geographers are:

Notable physical geographers

Alexander Von Humboldt, considered to be the founding father of physical geography.
  • Eratosthenes (276 – 194 BC), who made the first known reliable estimation of the Earth's size.
  • Ptolemy (c.90 – c.168), who compiled Greek and Roman knowledge to produce the book Geographia.
  • Abū Rayhĝn Bīrūnī (973 – 1048 AD), considered te father of geodesy.[2][3]
  • Ibn Sina (Avicenna, 980–1037), who formulated the law of superposition and concept of uniformitarianism in The Book of Healing.[4][5]
  • Muhammad al-Idrisi (Dreses, 1100 – c.1165), who drew the Tabula Rogeriana, the most accurate world map in pre-modern times.[6]
  • Piri Reis (1465 – c.1554), whose Piri Reis map is the oldest surviving world map to include the Americas and possibly Antarctica
  • Gerardus Mercator (1512–1594), an innovative cartographer and originator of the Mercator projection.
  • Alexander Von Humboldt (1769–1859), considered the father of modern geography. Published Kosmos and founded the study of biogeography.
  • Arnold Henry Guyot (1807–1884), who noted the structure of glaciers and advanced the understanding of glacial motion, especially in fast ice flow.
  • Louis Agassiz (1807–1873), the author of a glacial theory which disputed the notion of a steady-cooling Earth.
  • Alfred Russel Wallace (1823–1913), founder of modern biogeography and the Wallace line.
  • Walther Penck (1888–1923), proponent of the cycle of erosion and the simultaneous occurrence of uplift and denudation.
  • William Morris Davis (1850–1934), father of American geography and developer of the cycle of erosion theory.
  • Sir Ernest Shackleton (1874–1922), Antarctic explorer during the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration.
  • Robert E. Horton (1875–1945), founder of modern hydrology and concepts such as infiltration capacity and overland flow.
  • J Harlen Bretz (1882–1981), pioneer of research into the shaping of landscapes by catastrophic floods, most notably the Bretz (Missoula) floods.
  • Willi Dansgaard (born 1922), palaeoclimatologist and quaternary scientist, instrumental in the use of oxygen-isotope dating and co-identifier of Dansgaard-Oeschger events.
  • Hans Oeschger (1927–1998), palaeoclimatologist and pioneer in ice core research, co-identifier of Dansgaard-Orschger events.
  • Richard Chorley (1927–2002), a key contributor to the quantitative revolution and the use of systems theory in geography.
  • Sir Nicholas Shackleton (1937–2006), who demonstrated that oscillations in climate over the past few million years could be correlated with variations in the orbital and positional relationship between the Earth and the Sun.
  • Stefan Rahmstorf (born 1960), professor of abrupt climate changes and author on theories of thermohaline dynamics.

See also

Further reading

  • Smithson, Peter; et al. (2002). Fundamentals of the Physical Environment. Routledge, London. 
  • Holden, Joseph (2004). Introduction to Physical Geography and the Environment. Prentice-Hall, London. 
  • Summerfield, Mike (1991). Global Geomorphology. Longman, London. 
  • Wainwright, John; Mulligan, M. (2003). Environmental Modelling: Finding Simplicity in Complexity. John Wiley and Sons Ltd, London. 
  • Strahler, Alan; Strahler Arthur (2006). Introducing Physical Geography. Wiley,New York. 
  • Yang, Xin-She (2009). Introductory Mathematics for Earth Scientists. Dunedin Academic, Edinburgh. 
  • Inkpen, Robert (2004). Science, Philosophy and Physical Geography. Routledge, London. 

External links


  1. Fundamentals of Physical Geography, 2nd Edition, by M. Pidwirny, 2006
  2. Akbar S. Ahmed (1984). "Al-Beruni: The First Anthropologist", RAIN 60, p. 9-10.
  3. H. Mowlana (2001). "Information in the Arab World", Cooperation South Journal 1.
  4. Toulmin, S. and Goodfield, J. (1965), The Ancestry of science: The Discovery of Time, Hutchinson & Co., London, p. 64 (cf. Contribution of Ibn Sina to the development of Earth Sciences)
  5. Munim M. Al-Rawi and Salim Al-Hassani (November 2002). "The Contribution of Ibn Sina (Avicenna) to the development of Earth sciences" (PDF). FSTC. Retrieved 2008-07-01. 
  6. S. P. Scott (1904), History of the Moorish Empire, pp. 461-2:

    The compilation of Edrisi marks an era in the history of science. Not only is its historical information most interesting and valuable, but its descriptions of many parts of the earth are still authoritative. For three centuries geographers copied his maps without alteration. The relative position of the lakes which form the Nile, as delineated in his work, does not differ greatly from that established by Baker and Stanley more than seven hundred years afterwards, and their number is the same.