Geography Physical Geography
by
Mark Welford
  • LAST REVIEWED: 19 May 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 February 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199874002-0005

Introduction

Physical geography is the study of the processes that shape the Earth’s surface, the animals and plants that inhabit it, and the spatial patterns they exhibit. Self-identified in the mid- to late 1800s, physical geographers and in particular geomorphologists dominated the discipline of geography to the late 1930s. But emphasis on description and classification of climates, landforms, and biomes and an unhealthy dose of environmental determinism weakened physical geography to its low point in the 1950s. Physical geography along with human geography underwent radical quantification in the late 1950s and early 1960s. This was followed in the 1970s by a period of intense disciplinary specialization, resulting in the recognition of five broad divisions of physical geography: geomorphology, climatology, biogeography, soil science, and Quaternary environmental change. Within each broad division exists a plethora of subdisciplines and specializations. In the early 21st century, physical geographers and their discipline are undergoing a renaissance in large part due to physical geography’s broad subject matter, its intrinsic interdisciplinary nature, and the accelerating pace of global environmental change. This renaissance is evident in Nicholas J. Clifford’s redefinition of physical geography in “Globalization: A Physical Geography Perspective” (Clifford 2009, cited under General Overviews): “At a fundamental level, Physical Geography has always sought to describe and understand the multiple subsystems of the environment and their connections with human activity: it is global and globalizing at its very roots.” This updated definition stresses the notion that physical geographers must embrace “larger-scale issues of environment and development and environmental change.” Human activity is creating a new geologic era—the Anthropocene. In reaction to this theme, many have argued that physical geographers must become more interdisciplinary while retaining a spatioanalytic approach to their study of human-environmental interactions. Irrespective of disciplinary membership, in the coming decades, if a more integrative physical geographic discipline continues to emerge, physical geographers will become indispensable—global warming will affect the spatial and temporal patterns of local, regional, and global temperatures; precipitation; and evapotranspiration, which affect the following processes (among many others): weathering rates, soil erosion, shallow landslide occurrence, flood hydrologies and river planforms, animal and plant distributions, sea level, and glacier and permafrost melting. Finally, remote sensing and digital mapping and analysis are among many exciting new arenas in physical geography. It is possible, inter alia, to predict soil attributes by using terrain analysis, to predict high spatial and temporal resolution rainfall, to estimate ice-sheet surface lowering, and to estimate soil moisture.

General Overviews

Several books and articles discuss the history, coverage, future, and theoretical and philosophical foundations of physical geography. Key among these are Clark, et al. 1987 and Gregory 2000. Others, such as Boyd 2009, Clifford 2009, and Thrift 2002, argue that geographers, especially physical geographers with remote sensing skills, will be in high demand in the future because of the need to document accelerating global environmental change. Allied to this is the demand in Chin and Harden 2010 that physical geography become involved in the global debate on environmental change. But to conduct meaningful research on global environmental change, geographers, both faculty and students, must read the seminal Haines-Young and Petch 1986 on scientific practice and critical thinking in physical geography.

  • Boyd, Doreen S. “Remote Sensing in Physical Geography: A Twenty-First-Century Perspective.” Progress in Physical Geography 33.4 (2009): 451–456.

    DOI: 10.1177/0309133309346645E-mail Citation »

    An excellent introduction to the use and future potential of remote sensing in physical geography. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Chin, Anne, and Carol Harden. “The Future of Human-Landscape Interactions.” AAG Newsletter (December 2010): 8.

    E-mail Citation »

    This call to action must be heeded. Physical geographers must get involved in mitigation and amelioration of environmental problems.

  • Clark, Michael J., Kenneth J. Gregory, and Angela M. Gurnell, eds. Horizons in Physical Geography. Totowa, NJ: Barnes and Noble, 1987.

    E-mail Citation »

    This edited text brings together many practitioners of physical geography to discuss advances in process understanding, the integration of systems concepts into physical geographic research frameworks, and the prospects for the discipline.

  • Clifford, Nicholas J. “Globalization: A Physical Geography Perspective.” Progress in Physical Geography 33.1 (2009): 5–16.

    DOI: 10.1177/0309133309105035E-mail Citation »

    Argues effectively that physical geographers have always tried to decipher the complexity of environmental processes and the impact of human activity on these processes. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Gregory, Kenneth J. The Changing Nature of Physical Geography. 2d ed. London: Arnold, 2000.

    E-mail Citation »

    Graduate students new to physical geography should read this or the earlier 1985 edition, because it illustrates how physical geographers can contribute to our understanding of global climate and environmental change.

  • Haines-Young, Roy, and James Petch. Physical Geography: Its Nature and Methods. London: Harper and Row, 1986.

    E-mail Citation »

    This is an excellent introduction to the theoretical and philosophical underpinnings of physical geography and methodological practices used by physical geographers. It is still as relevant as it was when first published; it is imperative that graduate students read this book.

  • Thrift, Nigel. “The Future of Geography.” Geoforum 33.2 (2002): 291–298.

    DOI: 10.1016/S0016-7185(02)00019-2E-mail Citation »

    Thrift argues that the disciplines of physical and human geography have bright futures, given accelerating global environmental change.

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