|CHAPTER 1: Introduction to Physical GeographyIntroductionThe main objective of this online textbook 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 bethe 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.
A. History of Geography and 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
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.
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:
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 textbook also deals with the alterations of the environment because of human interaction. These pieces of information belong in the Human-Land Tradition of geography.
B.Elements of Geography
In the previous section, we discovered that geography consists of at least two different sub-fields of knowledge with similar methodology: Physical geography and human geography. The following table also helps to make the differences between these two types of geography more apparent. This table describes some of the phenomena or elements studied by each of these sub-fields of knowledge. Knowing what kinds of things are studied by geographers provides us with a better understanding of the differences between physical and human geography.
Geography is also a discipline that integrates a wide variety of subject matter. Almost any area of human knowledge can be examined from a spatial perspective. Figure 1b-1 describes some of the main subdisciplines within human and physical geography. Physical geography’s primary subdisplines study the Earth’s atmosphere (meteorology and climatology), animal and plant life (biogeography), physical landscape (geomorphology), soils (pedology), and waters (hydrology). Some of the dominant areas of study in human geography include: human society and culture (social and cultural geography), behavior (behavioral geography), economics (economic geography), politics (political geography), and urban systems (urban geography).
The graphic model in Figure indicates that the study of geography can also involve a holistic synthesis. Holistic synthesis connects knowledge from a variety of academic fields in both human and physical geography. For example, the study of the enhancement of the Earth’s greenhouse effect and the resulting global warming requires a multidisciplinary approach for complete understanding. The fields of climatology and meteorology are required to understand the physical effects of adding addition greenhouse gases to the atmosphere’s radiation balance. The field of economic geography provides information on how various forms of human economic activity contribute to the emission of greenhouse gases through fossil fuel burning and land-use change. Combining the knowledge of both of these academic areas gives us a more comprehensive understanding of why this serious environmental problem occurs.
The holistic nature of geography is both a strength and a weakness. Geography’s strength comes from its ability to connect functional interrelationships that are not normally noticed in narrowly defined fields of knowledge. The most obvious weakness associated with the geographical approach is related to the fact that holistic understanding is often too simple and misses important details of cause and effect.
(c). Scope of Physical Geography
We have now learned that physical geography examines and investigates natural phenomena spatially. In the previous section, we identified some of the key elements studied by physical geographers. Combining these two items, we can now suggest that physical geography studies the spatial patterns of weather and climate, soils, vegetation, animals, water in all its forms, and landforms. Physical geography also examines the interrelationships of these phenomena to human activities. This sub-field of geography is academically known as the Human-Land Tradition. This area of geography has seen very keen interest and growth in the last few decades because of the acceleration of human induced environmental degradation. Thus, physical geography’s scope is much broader than the simple spatial study of nature. It also involves the investigation of how humans are influencing nature.
Academics studying physical geography and other related earth sciences are rarely generalists. Most are in fact highly specialized in their fields of knowledge and tend to focus themselves in one of the following well defined areas of understanding in physical geography:
Geomorphology – studies the various landforms on the Earth’s surface.
Pedology – is concerned with the study of soils.
Biogeography – is the science that investigates the spatial relationships of plants and animals.
Hydrology – is interested in the study of water in all its forms.
Meteorology – studies the circulation of the atmosphere over short time spans.
Climatology – studies the effects of weather on life and examines the circulation of the atmosphere over longer time spans.
The above fields of knowledge generally have a primary role in introductory textbooks dealing with physical geography. Introductory physical geography textbooks can also contain information from other related disciplines including:
Geology – studies the form of the Earth’s surface and subsurface, and the processes that create and modify it.
Ecology – the scientific study of the interactions between organisms and their environment.
Oceanography – the science that examines the biology, chemistry, physics, and geology of oceans.
Cartography – the technique of making maps.
Astronomy – the science that examines celestial bodies and the cosmos.
(d). Geography as an Environmental Science
Webster’s 9th Collegiate Dictionary defines Environment “… as the complex of physical, chemical, and biotic factors (such as climate, soil, and living things) that act upon an organism or an ecological community and ultimately determines its form and survival“.
Both human and physical geography provide an important intellectual background for studying the environment. Many environmental studies/science programs offered by Universities and Colleges around the world rely on the information found in various geography courses to help educate their students about the state of the environment.
| (e). History of Physical Geography
The nature of understanding in physical geography has changed over time. When investigating this change it becomes apparent that certain universal ideas or forces had very important ramifications to the academic study of physical geography. During the period from 1850 to 1950, there seems to be four main ideas that had a strong influence on the discipline:
(1). Uniformitarianism – this theory rejected the idea that catastrophic forces were responsible for the current conditions on the Earth. It suggested instead that continuing uniformity of existing processes were responsible for the present and past conditions of this planet.
(2). Evolution – Charles Darwin‘s Origin of Species (1859) suggested that natural selection determined which individuals would pass on their genetic traits to future generations. As a result of this theory, evolutionary explanations for a variety of natural phenomena were postulated by scientists. The theories of uniformitarianism and evolution arose from a fundamental change in the way humans explained the universe and nature. During the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries scholars began refuting belief or myth based explanations of the cosmos, and instead used science to help explain the mysteries of nature. Belief based explanations of the cosmos are made consistent with a larger framework of knowledge that focuses on some myth. However, theories based on science questioned the accuracy of these beliefs.
(3). Exploration and Survey – much of the world had not been explored before 1900. Thus, during this period all of the fields of physical geography were actively involved with basic data collection. This data collection included activities like determining the elevation of land surfaces, classification and description of landforms, the measurement of the volume of flow of rivers, measurement of various phenomena associated to weather and climate, and the classification of soils, organisms, biological communities and ecosystems.
(4). Conservation – beginning in the 1850s a concern for the environment began to develop as a result of the human development of once natural areas in the United States and Europe. One of the earliest statements of these ideas came fromGeorge Perkins Marsh (1864) in his book “Man in Nature” or “Physical Geography as Modified by Human Action“. This book is often cited by scholars as the first significant academic contribution to conservation and environmentalism.
After 1950, the following two forces largely determined the nature of physical geography:
(1). The Quantitative Revolution – measurement became the central focus of research in Physical Geography. It was used primarily for hypothesis testing. With measurement came mapping, models, statistics, mathematics, and hypothesis testing. The quantitative revolution was also associated with a change in the way in which physical geographers studied the Earth and its phenomena. Researchers now began investigating process rather than mere description of the environment.
(2). The study of Human/Land Relationships – the influence of human activity on the environment was becoming very apparent after 1950. As a result, many researchers in physical geography began studying the influence of humans on the environment. Some of the dominant themes in these studies included: environmental degradation and resource use; natural hazards and impact assessment; and the effect of urbanization and land-use change on natural environments.
(f). Future of Physical Geography
The following list describes some of the important future trends in physical geography research:
(1). Continued development of applied physical geography for the analysis and correction of human-induced environmental problems. A student of applied physical geography uses theoretical information from the field of physical geography to manage and solve problems related to natural phenomena found in the real world.
(2). Remote Sensing – Advances in technology have caused the development of many new instruments for the monitoring of the Earth’s resources and environment from airborne and space platforms. Also see section 2e. The most familiar use of remote sensing technology is to monitor the Earth’s weather for forecasting.
What is System theory:-
the transdisciplinary study of the abstract organization of phenomena, independent of their substance, type, or spatial or temporal scale of existence. It investigates both the principles common to all complex entities, and the (usually mathematical) models which can be used to describe them.
Systems theory was proposed in the 1940’s by the biologistLudwig von Bertalanffy (: General Systems Theory, 1968), and furthered by Ross Ashby (Introduction to Cybernetics, 1956). von Bertalanffy was both reacting agaInst reductionism and attempting to revive the unity of science. He emphasized that real systems are open to, and interact with, their environments, and that they can acquire qualitatively new properties through emergence, resulting in continual evolution. Rather than reducing an entity (e.g. the human body) to the properties of its parts or elements (e.g. organs or cells), systems theory focuses on the arrangement of and relations between the parts which connect them into a whole (cf. holism). This particular organization determines a system, which is independent of the concrete substance of the elements (e.g. particles, cells, transistors, people, etc). Thus, the same concepts and principles of organization underlie the different disciplines (physics, biology, technology, sociology, etc.), providing a basis for their unification. Systems concepts include: system-environment boundary, input, output, process, state, hierarchy, goal-directedness, and information.
The developments of systems theory are diverse (Klir, Facets of Systems Science, 1991), including conceptual foundations and philosophy (e.g. the philosophies of Bunge, Bahm and Laszlo); mathematical modeling and information theory (e.g. the work of Mesarovic and Klir); and practical applications. Mathematical systems theory arose from the development of isomorphies between the models of electrical circuits and other systems. Applications include engineering, computing, ecology, management, and family psychotherapy. Systems analysis, developed independently of systems theory, applies systems principles to aid a decisIon-maker with problems of identifying, reconstructing, optimizing, and controlling a system (usually a socio-technical organization), while taking into account multiple objectives, constraints and resources. It aims to specify possible courses of action, together with their risks, costs and benefits. Systems theory is closely connected to cybernetics, and also to system dynamics, which models changes in a network of coupled variables (e.g. the “world dynamics” models of Jay Forrester and the Club of Rome). Related ideas are used in the emerging “sciences of complexity”, studying self-organization and heterogeneous networks of interacting actors, and associated domains such as far-from-equilibrium thermodynamics, chaotic dynamics, artificial life, artificial intelligence, neural networks, and computer modeling and simulation.
Francis Heylighen and Cliff Joslyn Prepared for the Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy.(Copyright Cambridge University Press)