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Unit 01

INTRODUCING PHYSICAL GEOGRAPHY

Unit Overview

This unit discusses the origins of the modem discipline of Geography as well as some of the discipline's essential elements. The main sections of this unit pertain to:

  • Geography
  • Physical geography
  • A century of physical geography
  • Systems and models in physical geography
  • Geographic magnitude

A typical layperson's view of Geography might include only such tasks as naming the capitals or reciting statistics about the world's longest rivers. The discipline, however, is far more intellectual, sophisticated, and diverse.

In its most ideal form, Geography involves an examination of the interactions of physical systems and social systems within a spatial context. This bridging rarely occurs. Instead, most geographic inquiry falls within the two main sub-disciplines: physical geography and human geography. Physical geography involves examinations of spatial processes and patterns in the physical environment, while human geography is concerned with spatial differentiation, the organization of human activity, and its interrelationships with the physical environment (Johnston et al., 2000). Geographers tend to think holistically, consider a variety of factors and processes, and then synthesize information from other disciplines in order to answer research questions.

Even though Geography is a very diverse discipline, the spatial component connects all forms of research within the discipline. For example, geographical research might resemble meteorological research, but a geographer's emphasis on spatial relationships is one way the two disciplines differ. Since this unit and rest of the book deals with physical geography, its various subfields will be noted.

  • Climatology (geography and meteorology)
  • Geomorphology (geography and geology)
  • Biogeography (geography and biology)
  • Soil geography (geography and pedology)
  • Marine geography (geography and oceanography)
  • Water resources (geography and hydrology)

Systems and models are integral elements of physical geography regardless of the subfield. A system is any set of related objects or events and their interactions. A model is an abstraction of reality built (both qualitatively and quantitatively) to understand better interrelationships among variables. Systems, with their various feedback mechanisms, need to be sufficiently understood before any modeling is undertaken. An example of the use of models in physical geography is the development of a Global Circulation Model (GCM) by a climatologist to better understand the future impacts of enhanced global warming on precipitation totals in the Amazon Basin.

The final topic discussed in this unit is spatial scale, which relates to the geographic magnitude of an event, as well as to the amount of time needed to produce an event. Different processes act at different scales, and therefore they produce differently scaled phenomena.

Unit Objectives

  • To introduce and discuss the contemporary focus of physical geography
  • To relate physical geography to the other natural and physical sciences
  • To introduce the systems and modeling approaches in physical geography


Glossary of Key Terms

Biogeography The geography of plants (phytogeography) and animals (zoogeography).
Climatology The geographic study of climates. This includes not only climate classification and the analysis of regional distribution, but also broader environmental questions that concern climate change, interrelationships with soil and vegetation, and human-climate interaction.
Closed system A self-contained system exhibiting no exchange of energy or matter across its boundaries (interfaces).
Dynamic equilibrium State of a system in balance, when it is neither growing nor contracting but continues in full operation.
Feedback Occurs when a change in one part of a system causes a change in another part of the system.
Geomorphology Literally means earth shape or form. The geography of landscape and its evolution is a major subfield of physical geography.
Marine geography Physical side of this subfield treats coastlines and shores, beaches, and other landscape features associated with the oceanic margins of the continents.
Model The creation of an idealized representation of reality in order to demonstrate its most important properties.
Open system A system whose boundaries (interfaces) freely permit the transfer of energy and matter across them.
Orders of magnitude Sizes of geographic entities.
Phytogeography The geography of flora or plant life; where botany and physical geography overlap.
Soil geography Systematic study of the spatial patterns of soils, their distribution, and interrelationships with climate, vegetation, and humankind.
Spatial Pertaining to space on the Earth's surface; synonym for geographic(al).
Subsystem A component of a larger system; it can act independently, but operates within, and is linked to, the larger system.
System Any set of related objects or events and their interactions.
Water resources Subfield of physical geography involving its intersection with hydrology; systematic study of the surface and subsurface water supplies potentially available for human use.
Zoogeography The geography of animal life or fauna; where zoology and physical geography overlap.


Unit Outline

  • Geography
    • Synthesis of knowledge about Earth's surface
    • Concerned with organization of physical and human phenomena C. Holistic (all-inclusive), integrating discipline
    • Fields of geography
      • broad division into physical and human geography
      • relations with cognate disciplines
  • Physical Geography
    • Greek and Roman beginnings
    • Arab leadership during the Dark Ages
    • Renaissance after 1500 with age of exploration and discovery
    • The rise of modem Physical Geography
    • Subfields of physical geography
      • geomorphology
      • climatology
      • phytogeography
      • biogeography/ecology
      • zoogeography
      • soil geography
      • marine geography
      • water resources
  • A Century of Physical Geography
  • Systems and models in physical geography
    • Systems
      • open systems
      • closed systems
      • subsystems
      • dynamic equilibrium
      • negative and positive feedback in systems
    • Models
      • idealized constructs
      • representations of reality
      • demonstrate workings of physical processes in relatively simple ways
  • Geographic magnitude
    • Orders of magnitude (Fig. 1.7)
    • Sliding scale (box, p. 15)


Review Questions

  1. Contrast the mechanisms and effects of positive and negative feedback.
  2. Trace some of the major developments in physical geography during the past century, mentioning a few of the most prominent physical geographers.
  3. Write out in exponential notation the orders of magnitude from 1/1000 to 1 million.