Article

Physical Geography

Mark Welford

in Geography

ISBN: 9780199874002
Published online February 2013 | | DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/obo/9780199874002-0005
Physical Geography

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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.

Article.  18361 words. 

Subjects: Earth Sciences and Geography ; Human Geography

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