What Is Physical Geography?

Sunbeams Shining onto a Pastoral Landscape
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The vast discipline of geography is divided into two major branches: 1) physical geography and 2) cultural or human geography. Physical geography encompasses the geographic tradition known as the Earth sciences tradition. Physical geographers look at the landscapes, surface processes, and climate of the earth—all of the activity found in the four spheres (the atmosphere, hydrosphere, biosphere, and lithosphere) of our planet.

Key Takeaways: Physical Geography

  • Physical geography is the study of our planet and its systems (ecosystems, climate, atmosphere, hydrology).
  • Understanding the climate and how it's changing (and the potential results of those changes) affect people now and can help plan for the future.
  • Because the study of Earth is vast, numerous sub-branches of physical geography specialize in different areas, from the upper limits of the sky to the bottom of the ocean.

In contrast, cultural or human geography spends time studying why people locate where they do (including demographics) and how they adapt to and change the landscape in which they live. Someone studying cultural geography might also research how languages, religion, and other aspects of culture develop where people live; how those aspects are transmitted to others as people move; or how cultures change because of where they move.

Physical Geography: Definition

Physical geography consists of many diverse elements. These include: the study of the earth's interaction with the sun, seasons, the composition of the atmosphere, atmospheric pressure and wind, storms and climatic disturbances, climate zones, microclimates, the hydrologic cycle, soils, rivers and streams, flora and fauna, weathering, erosion, natural hazards, deserts, glaciers and ice sheets, coastal terrain, ecosystems, geologic systems, and so much more.

The Four Spheres

It's a little deceiving (even overly simplistic) to say that physical geography studies the Earth as our home and looks at the four spheres because each possible area of research encompasses so much.

The atmosphere itself has several layers to study, but the atmosphere as a topic under the lens of physical geography also includes research areas such as the ozone layer, the greenhouse effect, wind, jet streams, and weather.

The hydrosphere encompasses everything having to do with water, from the water cycle to acid rain, groundwater, runoff, currents, tides, and oceans.

The biosphere concerns living things on the planet and why they live where they do, with topics from ecosystems and biomes to food webs and the carbon and nitrogen cycles.

The study of the lithosphere includes geological processes, such as the formation of rocks, plate tectonics, earthquakes, volcanoes, soil, glaciers, and erosion.

Sub-Branches of Physical Geography

Since the Earth and its systems are so complex, there are many sub-branches and even sub-sub-branches of physical geography as a research area, depending on how granularly the categories are divided. They also have overlap between them or with other disciplines, such as geology.

Geographical researchers will never be at a loss of something to study, as they often need to understand multiple areas to inform their own targeted research.

Eruption, Holuhraun, Bardarbunga Volcano, Iceland
 
  • Geomorphology: the study of Earth's landforms and its surface's processes—and how these processes change and have changed Earth's surface—such as erosion, landslides, volcanic activity, earthquakes, and floods
Environmental assessment on the field
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  • Hydrology: the study of the water cycle, including water distribution across the planet in lakes, rivers, aquifers, and groundwater; water quality; drought effects; and the probability of flooding in a region. Potamology is the study of rivers.
Melting glacier
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  • Glaciology: the study of glaciers and ice sheets, including their formation, cycles, and effect on Earth's climate
UK, England, Dorset, Lyme Regis, Monmouth Beach, Ammonite Pavement, Large ammonite fossil
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  • Biogeography: the study of the distribution of life forms across the planet, relating to their environments; this field of study is related to ecology, but it also looks into the past distribution of life forms as well, as found in the fossil record.
NOAA satellite image of hurricane Fran near USA
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  • Meteorology: the study of Earth's weather, such as fronts, precipitation, wind, storms, and the like, as well as forecasting short-term weather based on available data
USA, California, Los Angeles, smog over Los Angeles
 
  • Climatology: the study of Earth's atmosphere and climate, how it has changed over time, and how humans have affected it
Asian college student working on botany
 
  • Pedology: the study of soil, including types, formation, and regional distribution over Earth
Earth From Space - The Straits Of Gibraltar
 
  • Paleogeography: the study of historical geographies, such as the location of the continents over time, through looking at geological evidence, such as the fossil record
Aerila view of the coastline
 
  • Coastal geography: the study of the coasts, specifically concerning what happens where land and water meet
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  • Oceanography: the study of the world's oceans and seas, including aspects such as floor depths, tides, coral reefs, underwater eruptions, and currents. Exploration and mapping is a part of oceanography, as is research into the effects of water pollution.
Artwork of the Tundra Mammoth
The Tundra Mammoth lived during the Pleistocene epoch and into the early Holocene, and as such coexisted with humans. MARK GARLICK/SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY/Getty Images 
  • Quaternary science: the study of the previous 2.6 million years on Earth, such as the most recent ice age and Holocene period, including what it can tell us about the change in Earth's environment and climate
Mountains reflection along the Portage Creek
 
  • Landscape ecology: the study of how ecosystems interact with and affect each other in an area, especially looking at the effects of the uneven distribution of landforms and species in these ecosystems (spatial heterogeneity)
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  • Geomatics: the field that gathers and analyzes geographic data, including the gravitational force of Earth, the motion of the poles and Earth's crust, and ocean tides (geodesy). In geomatics, researchers use the Geographic Information System (GIS), which is a computerized system for working with map-based data.
People sunbathing on Boucan Canot beach, Indian Ocean
 
  • Environmental geography: the study of the interactions between people and their environment and the resulting effects, both on the environment and on the people; this field bridges physical geography and human geography.
Full Moon in winter
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  • Astronomical geography or astronography: the study of how the sun and moon affect the Earth as well as our planet's relationship to other celestial bodies

Why Physical Geography Is Important

Knowing about the physical geography of Earth is important for every serious student studying the planet because the natural processes of Earth affect the distribution of resources (from carbon dioxide in the air to freshwater on the surface to minerals deep underground) and the conditions of the human settlement. Anyone studying processes involving Earth and its processes is working within the confines of its physical geography. These natural processes have resulted in a plethora of varied effects on human populations throughout the millennia.