What is the point of physical geography?

Imagine that you are a first year student sitting there fresh-faced in your first physical geography lecture.  Some of you will be excited having done physical geography at A-level and enjoyed it, others will be saying ‘I only like human geography, the physical stuff is boring!”  Perhaps others will be saying “I am an ecologist, why do I have to learn this geology stuff?”  All are valid viewpoints.  I have spent my life as a geographer, come geologist, working in the high arctic on glacial processes, reconstructing our Ice Age past, studying the geography of human evolution in Africa and applying geomorphological expertise to the study of forensic footprints at crime scenes. 

 It is hardly surprising therefore that I believe the world’s leaders and decision-makers all need to be both scientifically and geographically literate.  We must overcome huge challenges in the coming years as the Earth’s climate changes.  What ever happens about greenhouse gas emissions climate will change, in fact change is normal!  Geographers can help decision-makers face these challenges and inform the solutions.   Let me try and show you why geographers matter. 

Roll the clock forward and imagine that you are now working for an aid organisation coordinating humanitarian relief.  The news breaks of a major earthquake in northern Pakistan.  You have to mobilise people, resources and get them to the epicentre fast.  The questions flood in: what is the terrain like, what is the vegetation like, what is the climate and weather doing and where are the transport lines most vulnerable to after-shocks? These are just a small selection – Google Earth and the internet has its limits.  Later you may be asked to advise on rebuilding lost infrastructure or improving disaster/emergency planning.  All these questions are underpinned by physical geography.

If you don’t like this scenario image yourself as a conservation worker in Africa saving the white rhino.  The rhino is a product of its environment, the distribution of soil and food resources and its movements limited by the local terrain.  Climate change and local weather patterns all play apart in its survival even before we consider the social and cultural aspects that lead to is predation by poachers.

I could go on.  Understanding the Earth’s surface terrain its shape, composition and the processes that formed it in the past and that shape it now and will in the future is fundamental to almost all human interaction with the planet we live on.  That is what physical geography is about.  It is the foundation of environmental and ecological science a key component of geology and therefore to our understanding of Earth history and our past.  That is why all those interested in ecology, geology and the environment need to be versed in the fundamental Earth systems.

Definition and history

Physical geography is the study of the processes that shape the Earth’s surface, the animals and plants that inhabit it, and their spatial distribution.  This surface lies at the interface between the lithosphere and the atmosphere and is shaped by both.  Its study is by definition multi-disciplinary therefore drawing on geology and meteorology, and is fundamental to understanding the ecology and biogeography our planet.

As a discipline it emerged in the mid- to late 1800s with geomorphologists dominating the discipline at first (Table 1).  The emphasis was on the description of landscapes, climates and biomes. Ideas of environmental determinism dominated in which landscapes in particular were seen as part of development trajectories.  For example, William Morris Davis (1850-1934) saw fluvial landscape in a series of age related cycles.

Geographical sub-disciplines
Geomorphology – shape of the Earth’s surface and processes by which it is shaped, both at the present as well as in the past. It is closely linked to Geology.
Hydrology – the distribution, movement and quality of water on the land surface and in the soils and rocks near the surface.  Ground water hydrology is known as geo-hydrology.
Glaciology – study of the Earth’s current glaciers and ice sheets (cryosphere).  It is closely associated with Quaternary Science.
Biogeography – study of the geographic patterns of species distribution and the processes that result in these patterns.
Climatology – study of the Earth’s climate or weather patterns that predominate at a location, distinct from meteorology which is the study of day-to-day weather.
Pedology or Soil Science – the study of soils in their natural environment.
Oceanography – the study of the Earth’s oceans and seas, many people would recognise this as a discipline in its own right.
Quaternary Science – is the inter-disciplinary study of the Quaternary period, which encompasses the last 2.6 million years. This includes understanding past climates, landscape changes, ice sheets and the mechanisms of both climate and environmental change.
Geomatics – is the collection and process of geographically relevant ‘big-data’ from satellites and Earth observation systems.
Environmental Geography – this focuses on the interaction of humans and the natural world. In some respects it lies at the interface between human and physical geography.

Table 1: Some of the main sub-disciplines in Physical Geography.

Physical geography along with human geography underwent radical period of quantification in the late 1950s and early 1960s known as the Quantitative Revolution.  In geomorphology there was a radical shift from the description of landforms to process based experimentation on the mechanism by which landforms were formed.  What followed was massive growth in research and intense disciplinary specialisation around five broad themes: geomorphology, climatology, biogeography, soil science, and Quaternary environmental change

Today Physical Geographers remains an intrinsically inter-disciplinary subject of ever growing relevance as the pace of global environmental change accelerates. Geographers grapple with the inter-connected nature of the Earth’s fundamental geodynamic systems – lithosphere, hydrosphere, biosphere and atmosphere – and their impact on, and interaction with, different scales on the human use system.  It is by definition both local and global in scale and geographers’ bring their unique spatial and analytical skills to bear on these interactions.  Many geographers now recognise the Anthropocene as a new geological era; the era shaped by human activity.  It is an era in which geographical and scientific literacy are likely to be key to the survival of our species.

Succeeding in Physical Geography?

So you are still sitting there and now wondering how do I succeed in this unit?  How do I gain a fundamental knowledge of Physical Geography.  At this stage you probably want me to give you the answers to the exam or direct you to the magic ‘know it all geographical potions’.  Sadly the latter does not exist and the former would have William Davis turning in his grave.

The key is pro-active engagement in three vital areas, these are:

  • Preparation. Go on to Brightspace and engage with the material there.
  • Attend and engage. You will quickly find out that the lecture slides consist mainly of line diagrams and pictures.  Unless you note down the spoken words and explanations that go with them you won’t stand much chance of understanding the material.  If you could get everything from Brightspace why would we bother giving lectures?  You need to annotate a set of printed slides and write detailed notes during the lectures.  Without a good set of notes you will struggle and perhaps fail the unit – it’s that simple!  Take part in the discussions on the perspective pieces and use this as an opportunity to ask questions and seek greater understanding.
  • Reflect and read. So you leave the lecture and you are on to the next thing; your lecture notes end up at worse as a crumpled set of pages or at best get filed in a nice shiny, new binder.  You may even go as far as to buy a copy of one of the core texts and display it proudly on your shelves.  Have you ever heard of the ‘psychological value of unused information?’  People buy self-help books but never read them but feel better for having them – well that’s the concept.  It applies here – having that new shiny binder and copy of the core text makes you feel better, but in truth won’t improve your grade.  You need to engage with those notes and read the textbook!  You have to engage.  As soon as you get a chance after a lecture get the notes out and review them, don’t waste time copying them out and making them look pretty read and reflect them while making sure they are legible.  What do you understand and what don’t you?  What interests you and what left you feeling cold?  Look at the suggested reading list for the lecture provided each week and draw up a prioritised list of things to follow up on.  May be its to read a section of the core text and makes notes, may be it is to read suggested paper, or may be its to simply spend half an hour on the internet to get some specific examples, facts and illustrations.  Whatever it is augment your lecture notes by further research.  If you don’t understand stuff then be pro-active don’t sit there worrying about it – seek help.  You can get help from your Peer Assisted Learning (PAL) tutor if you have one or directly from the lecturer by attending one of the practical drop sessions.

Engage with the lectures as outline above and build a good body of notes and the assessment and exam will take care of themselves.

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