Topics in physical geography

Written by mary freeman
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Topics in physical geography
Maps play an important role in physical geography. (Hemera Technologies/ Images)

Physical geography, along with human geography, make up the subcategories of geography. Physical geography concerns itself with the natural processes and phenomena of a planet. Physical geography has many sub-disciplines, which you might encounter throughout any stage of schooling. A clay tablet dating back to 2,300 B.C. indicates that humans have been studying physical geography for thousands of years.

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Geomorphology and Pedology

In physical geography, the study of landscape, or geomorphology, ranges from the origins of particular phenomena, how certain processes occur and the classification of various elements of the landscape. Students can study what causes earthquakes and volcanoes and what their consequences are. Plate tectonics and continental drift is also covered under physical geography, and students might study why drift occurs and the history of how the plates have moved over the years. Younger students may be introduced to geomorphology by learning to classify mountains, plateaus, desert, canyons and other landforms. Pedology on the other hand, deals specifically with soil and rocks. Other physical geography topics continually arise within pedology. For example, students will need to be familiar with topics of hydrology and climatology in order to study erosion. The study of rocks, or geology, is also closely associated with pedology.

Meteorology and Climatology

In meteorology, students examine a planet's atmosphere and the phenomena and processes produced by it. In contrast to climatology, which studies the atmosphere's effect on life, meteorology concerns itself with shorter time spans. In both disciplines, students will study wind, clouds and temperature, as well as, how all these processes converge to create phenomena such as thunderstorms, tornadoes, hurricanes and lightening. In addition, global warming and climate change have become prominent themes in recent physical geography studies.


Hydrology explores all aspects of the hydrosphere. This area overlaps with meteorology and climatology in that students may study cloud formation, precipitation, rain cycles, humidity and snow. In addition, all bodies of water are covered, including oceans, rivers and groundwater. Topics of hydrology might be introduced through the examination of the basic properties of water and the ways in which it exists on Earth.


Biogeography is derived from the convergence of biology and geography. It is the study of the spatial distribution of life on a planet, in other words, it is a geographic study of the biosphere. Primarily biogeography deals with ecosystems, their functions and how they effect each other. Students will learn how to classify organisms, the basics of evolution and principles of biodiversity. Narrowed research of a particular biome may study particular organisms functions within their environment, the location of that particular biome and how the biome functions as a whole. The carbon and nitrogen cycles, as well as decomposition, may also be covered.

Cartography and Mapping

The strictest and most traditional definition of physical geography is the study or creation of maps. This particular subset of physical geography gave birth to cartography, the system of longitude and latitude and has spawned a whole area of study that overlaps with computer science and aerospace engineering today. Technological advances, like the Global Positioning System and Geographic Information Systems, have revolutionised mapping and are covered in-depth in higher physical geography studies. Beginning students may cover how maps are created and the function and history of maps.

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