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Physical Geography: A Unique Academic Approach

by Betsy Murphy

     Physical geography is the subfield of geography that focuses on the natural aspects of the earth, such as climate, landforms, soils and vegetation.  Upon first impression, the casual observer may be tempted to conclude that physical geography is simply a collection of knowledge gathered from other systematic natural sciences. However, deeper analysis reveals that physical geography is a synthesizing, integrating discipline—drawing upon knowledge from related sciences to study the interrelationships, processes, and distribution of phenomena throughout the landscape.

     In order to accomplish this synthesis, however, the physical geographer must be proficient not only in the application of geographic principles, but also in the related fields of meteorology, botany, pedology, and geology.  Immediately noticeable upon perusal of some of physical geography’s main scholarly journals is the depth and breadth of the field. For example, I found numerous articles in Physical Geography discussing soil development, soil fertility, and soil genesis—articles which could easily be found in Soil Science or one of the other academic pedology journals (Bach et al. 1996; Weinan et al. 1996; Goldin et al. 1996).  Likewise, I discovered various articles in Progress in Physical Geography on topics such as global warming, the general circulation model, and climatological change—all of which would provide valuable information for readers of the Journal of Climate or Journal of Meteorology (Hulme 1997; Wilby et al. 1997; Schulze 1997).  It is clearly evident in the literature that physical geographers are indeed immersed in studying many different topics “belonging” to other sciences.

    While it is certainly true that physical geography does not have a “topic” to call its own, the approach employed by physical geographers is distinctly geographic.  The task of the physical geographer is not to study one individual aspect of the environment, as is done in the systematic natural sciences, but to look for the interrelationships among those elements.  Hence, in order to understand the distribution of phenomena on the landscape, the physical geographer must study all processes involved in the creation of that environment.  For example, the article “Landscape-Scale Geomorphic Influences on Vegetation Patterns in Four Environments,” published in the March-April 1996 edition of Physical Geography, studies the vegetation, landforms, and climate in four distinct environments (Parker et al. 1996).  By studying the interrelationships which exist among these variables, instead of looking at them individually, the geographer is more able to understand the environment as a whole, and is therefore better equipped to explain the distributional variation of the vegetation being studied.

     In our world of ever-increasing scientific knowledge, the role of the physical geographer is more important than ever.  By bridging the gap between the related systematic sciences, the field of physical geography is constantly moving toward a greater understanding of the environments in which we live.  While the need to have a strong foundation in all of the related sciences makes this field a challenging one, it also enables the geographer to make exciting and vital contributions to the expanding body of scientific knowledge.

Works Cited
Bach, A.J. and Elliott-Fisk, D.L.  1996.  Soil Development on Late Pleistocene Moraines at Pine Creek,
     East-Central Sierra Nevada, California. Physical Geography 17: 1-28.
Goldin, A. and Edmonds, J.  1996.  A Numerical Evaluation of Some Florida Spodosols.  Physical 
     Geography 17: 242-252
Hulme, M.  1997.  Global Warming. Progress in Physical Geography 21: 446-454.
Parker, K.C. and Bendix, J.  1996.  Landscape-Scale Geomorphic Influences on Vegetation Patterns in
     Four Environments. Physical Geography 17: 113-141
Schulze, R.E.  1997.  Impacts of global climate change in a hydrologically vulnerable region: challenges to South
      African hydrologists. Progress in Physical Geography 21: 113-156.
Weinan, C. and Fryrear, D.W.  1996.  Grain-Size Distributions of Wind-Eroded Material Above the Flat Bare 
     Soil.  Physical Geography 17: 554-584.
Wilby, R.L. and Wigley, T.M.L. 1997.  Downscaling general circulation model output: a review of methods 
     and limitations. Progress in Physical Geography 21: 530-548. 

*This paper was prepared for a California State University Fullerton Graduate Seminar in Physical Geography.