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Physical geography is one of the two major sub-disciplines of geography. It deals with the study of processes and patterns (and their underlying dynamics) in the natural environment, as opposed to the cultural or built environment, the domain of human geography. The natural environment of Earth is often split into several spheres: atmosphere, biosphere, cryosphere, geosphere, hydrosphere, lithosphere, and pedosphere. Physical geography investigates the interactions between these spheres and also their changes through time.

Development of Physical Geography

  • Alexander von Humboldt was the most eminent proponent of physical geography
  • publication of Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection in 1859 changed views that had regarded the natural environment as harmoniously integrated but essentially static
  • comparable evolutionary/ developmental models were developed (e.g. “cycle of erosion” developed by William Morris Davis), but “stage” was paramount compared to “structure” and “process”
  • focused on the global classification of phenomena making up the Earth’s surface rather than understanding the Earth-surface processes that underpinned these phenomena in the first half of the 20th century
  • rapid growth and diversification within physical geography around the mid-20th century
  • “process revolution”: description and classification replaced by the measurement, monitoring, analysis, and modelling of formative processes
  • “systems approach”: downplays the individual objects and places the interrelationships between them at the centre stage
  • environmental change theme: both long-term and short-term, has become an increasingly potent force on the political agenda because of human impacts from Holocene to Anthropocene

Characteristics of Modern Physical Geography

  • interactions with established cognate sciences
  • provides solutions to many problems that people have to face in the environment
  • contributes its distinctive spatial perspective to the understanding of each of the component parts of the landscape
  • explores the interconnections between those components
  • the interface between the natural environment and people as a central concern

Sub-fields of Physical Geography

  • geomorphology
  • geocryology
  • hydrology
  • soil geography
  • biogeography
  • climatology
  • etc.

Notable Physical Geographers

  • Eratosthenes (276 – 194 BC), who made the first known reliable estimation of the Earth's size
  • Alexander von Humboldt (1769 – 1859), considered the father of physical geography
  • Wladimir Peter Köppen (1846 – 1940), developer of most important climate classification
  • William Morris Davis (1850 – 1934), developer of the geographical cycle theory
  • Milutin Milanković (1879 – 1958), explained the Earth's long-term climate changes caused by changes in the position of the Earth in comparison to the Sun

Contemporary Issues in Physical Geography

  • geo-ecological studies on glacier forelands
  • geography of global warming
Physical geography