Wednesday, December 28, 2011


The main objective of this blog is to introduce students to the exciting field of knowledge known as physical geography. Physical geography is a discipline that is part of a much larger area of understanding called geography. Most individuals define geography as a field of study that deals with maps. This definition is only partially correct. A better definition of geography may be the study of natural and human constructed phenomena relative to a spatial dimension.
The discipline of geography has a history that stretches over many centuries. Over this time period, the study of geography has evolved and developed into an important form of human scholarship. Examining the historical evolution of geography as a discipline provides some important insights concerning its character and methodology. These insights are also helpful in gaining a better understanding of the nature of physical geography. 

Some of the first truly geographical studies occurred more than four thousand years ago. The main purpose of these early investigations was to map features and places observed as explorers traveled to new lands. At this time, Chinese, Egyptian, and Phoenician civilizations were beginning to explore the places and spaces within and outside their homelands. The earliest evidence of such explorations comes from the archaeological discovery of a Babylonian clay tablet map that dates back to 2300 BC.
The early Greeks were the first civilization to practice a form of geography that was more than mere map making or cartography. Greek philosophers and scientist were also interested in learning about spatial nature of human and physical features found on the Earth. One of the first Greek geographers was Herodotus (circa 484 - 425 BC). Herodotus wrote a number of volumes that described the human and physical geography of the various regions of the Persian Empire.

The ancient Greeks were also interested in the form, size, and geometry of the Earth. Aristotle (circa 384 - 322 BC) hypothesized and scientifically demonstrated that the Earth had a spherical shape. Evidence for this idea came from observations of lunar eclipses. Lunar eclipses occur when the Earth casts its circular shadow on to the moon's surface. The first individual to accurately calculate the circumference of the Earth was the Greek geographer Eratosthenes (circa 276 - 194 BC). Eratosthenes calculated the equatorial circumference to be 40,233 kilometers using simple geometric relationships. This primitive calculation was unusually accurate. Measurements of the Earth using modern satellite technology have computed the circumference to be 40,072 kilometers.

Most of the Greek accomplishments in geography were passed on to the Romans. Roman military commanders and administrators used this information to guide the expansion of their Empire. The Romans also made several important additions to geographical knowledge. Strabo (circa 64 BC - 20 AD) wrote a 17 volume series called "Geographia". Strabo claimed to have traveled widely and recorded what he had seen and experienced from a geographical perspective. In his series of books, Strabo describes the cultural geographies of the various societies of people found from Britain to as far east as India, and south to Ethiopia and as far north as Iceland. Strabo also suggested a definition of geography that is quite complementary to the way many human geographers define their discipline today. This definition suggests that the aim of geography was to "describe the known parts of the inhabited world ... to write the assessment of the countries of the world [and] to treat the differences between countries".

During the second century AD, Ptolemy (circa 100 - 178 AD) made a number of important contributions to geography. Ptolemy's publication Geographike hyphegesis or "Guide to Geography" compiled and summarize much of the Greek and Roman geographic information accumulated at that time. Some of his other important contributions include the creation of three different methods for projecting the Earth's surface on a map, the calculation of coordinate locations for some eight thousand places on the Earth, and development of the concepts of geographical latitude and longitude (Figure 1a-1).

Figure 1a-1: This early map of the world was constructed using map making techniques developed by Ptolemy. Note that the map is organized with crisscrossing lines of latitude and longitude.
Little academic progress in geography occurred after the Roman period. For the most part, the Middle Ages (5th to 13th centuries AD) were a time of intellectual stagnation. In Europe, the Vikings of Scandinavia were the only group of people carrying out active exploration of new lands. In the Middle East, Arab academics began translating the works of Greek and Roman geographers starting in the 8th century and began exploring southwestern Asia and Africa. Some of the important intellectuals in Arab geography were Al-Idrisi, Ibn Battutah, and Ibn Khaldun. Al-Idrisi is best known for his skill at making maps and for his work of descriptive geography Kitab nuzhat al-mushtaq fi ikhtiraq al-afaq or "The Pleasure Excursion of One Who Is Eager to Traverse the Regions of the World". Ibn Battutah and Ibn Khaldun are well known for writing about their extensive travels of North Africa and the Middle East.

During the Renaissance (1400 to 1600 AD) numerous journeys of geographical exploration were commissioned by a variety of nation states in Europe. Most of these voyages were financed because of the potential commercial returns from resource exploitation. The voyages also provided an opportunity for scientific investigation and discovery. These voyages also added many significant contributions to geographic knowledge (Figure 1a-2). Important explorers of this period include Christopher Columbus, Vasco da Gama, Ferdinand Magellan, Jacques Cartier, Sir Martin Frobisher, Sir Francis Drake, John and Sebastian Cabot, and John Davis. Also during the Renaissance, Martin Behaim created a spherical globe depicting the Earth in its true three-dimensional form in 1492. Behaim's invention was a significant advance over two-dimensional maps because it created a more realistic depiction of the Earth's shape and surface configuration.

Figure 1a-2: This map was constructed by Oliva in 1560. It describes the known world at this time and suggests that North America is part of Asia. Further exploration of the world would soon reject this idea.
In the 17th century, Bernhardus Varenius (1622-1650) published an important geographic reference titled Geographia generalis (General Geography: 1650). In this volume, Varenius used direct observations and primary measurements to present some new ideas concerning geographic knowledge. This work continued to be a standard geographic reference for about a 100 years. Varenius also suggested that the discipline of geography could be subdivided into three distinct branches. The first branch examines the form and dimensions of the Earth. The second sub-discipline deals with tides, climatic variations over time and space, and other variables that are influenced by the cyclical movements of the Sun and moon. Together these two branches form the early beginning of what we collectively now call physical geography. The last branch of geography examined distinct regions on the Earth using comparative cultural studies. Today, this area of knowledge is called cultural geography.

During the 18th century, the German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) proposed that human knowledge could be organized in three different ways. One way of organizing knowledge was to classify its facts according to the type of objects studied. Accordingly, zoology studies animals, botany examines plants, and geology involves the investigation of rocks. The second way one can study things is according to a temporal dimension. This field of knowledge is of course called history. The last method of organizing knowledge involves understanding facts relative to spatial relationships. This field of knowledge is commonly known as geography. Kant also divided geography into a number of sub-disciplines. He recognized the following six branches: Physical, mathematical, moral, political, commercial, and theological geography.

Geographic knowledge saw strong growth in Europe and the United States in the 1800s. This period also saw the emergence of a number of societies interested in geographic issues. In Germany, Alexander von Humboldt, Carl Ritter, and Fredrich Ratzel made substantial contributions to human and physical geography. Humboldt's publication Kosmos (1844) examines the geology and physical geography of the Earth. This work is considered by many academics to be a milestone contribution to geographic scholarship. Late in the 19th Century, Ratzel theorized that the distribution and culture of the Earth's various human populations was strongly influenced by the natural environment. The French geographer Paul Vidal de la Blanche opposed this revolutionary idea. Instead, he suggested that human beings were a dominant force shaping the form of the environment. The idea that humans were modifying the physical environment was also prevalent in the United States. In 1847, George Perkins Marsh gave an address to the Agricultural Society of Rutland County, Vermont. The subject of this speech was that human activity was having a destructive impact on land, especially through deforestation and land conversion. This speech also became the foundation for his book Man and Nature or The Earth as Modified by Human Action, first published in 1864. In this publication, Marsh warned of the ecological consequences of the continued development of the American frontier.

During the first 50 years of the 1900s, many academics in the field of geography extended the various ideas presented in the previous century to studies of small regions all over the world. Most of these studies used descriptive field methods to test research questions. Starting in about 1950, geographic research experienced a shift in methodology. Geographers began adopting a more scientific approach that relied on quantitative techniques. The quantitative revolution was also associated with a change in the way in which geographers studied the Earth and its phenomena. Researchers now began investigating process rather than mere description of the event of interest. Today, the quantitative approach is becoming even more prevalent due to advances in computer and software technologies.

In 1964, William Pattison published an article in the Journal of Geography (1964, 63: 211-216) that suggested that modern Geography was now composed of the following four academic traditions: History of Geography and Physical Geography

  • Spatial Tradition - the investigation of the phenomena of geography from a strictly spatial perspective. 

  • Area Studies Tradition - the geographical study of an area on the Earth at either the local, regional, or global scale. 

  • Human-Land Tradition - the geographical study of human interactions with the environment. 

  • Earth Science Tradition - the study of natural phenomena from a spatial perspective. This tradition is best described as theoretical physical geography. 

Today, the academic traditions described by Pattison are still dominant fields of geographical investigation. However, the frequency and magnitude of human mediated environmental problems has been on a steady increase since the publication of this notion. These increases are the result of a growing human population and the consequent increase in the consumption of natural resources. As a result, an increasing number of researchers in geography are studying how humans modify the environment. A significant number of these projects also develop strategies to reduce the negative impact of human activities on nature. Some of the dominant themes in these studies include: environmental degradation of the hydrosphere, atmosphere, lithosphere, and biosphere; resource use issues; natural hazards; environmental impact assessment; and the effect of urbanization and land-use change on natural environments.

Considering all of the statements presented concerning the history and development of geography, we are now ready to formulate a somewhat coherent definition. This definition suggests that geography, in its simplest form, is the field of knowledge that is concerned with how phenomena are spatially organized. Physical geography attempts to determine why natural phenomena have particular spatial patterns and orientation. This online textbook will focus primarily on the Earth Science Tradition. Some of the information that is covered in this blog also deals with the alterations of the environment because of human interaction. These pieces of information belong in the Human-Land Tradition of geography.

Pidwirny, M. (2006). "Introduction to Geography". Fundamentals of Physical geography, 2nd Edition. 28/12/2011. 

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