physical geography

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physical geography:

see geographygeography,
the science of place, i.e., the study of the surface of the earth, the location and distribution of its physical and cultural features, the areal patterns or places that they form, and the interrelation of these features as they affect humans.
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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Physical Geography


the science that deals with the geographic envelope of the earth and its structural parts. Physical geography has two basic branches: general geography, which is concerned with the general structural patterns and development of the earth’s geographic envelope, and landscape science, which is the study of geosystems classified by rank. In addition, paleogeography is considered a branch of both physical geography and historical geology.

The physicogeographical sciences include various disciplines that study individual parts of the natural environment: geomorphology, climatology, land hydrology, oceanology, glaciology, geocryology, soil geography, and biogeography. Each of these, at the same time, comes under the heading of the corresponding natural science; for example, geomorphology is related to geology, and biogeography to biology. Physical geography is also closely associated with cartography and economic geography. In its practical applications—where it intersects with other scientific disciplines such as technology, agriculture, and medicine—physical geography plays a part in the many-sided evaluation of natural territorial complexes, or geosystems, and in their protection and rational utilization.

Principal stages of development. The concepts of physical geography can be found in rudimentary form in the works of ancient authors. As early as the seventh and sixth centuries B.C., the philosophers of the Ionian school—notably Thales and Anaximander—attempted to explain the natural phenomena observed on the earth’s surface by means of a purely speculative natural philosophy. Both the idea that the earth is spherical in shape and the notion of thermal zones were first advanced at the turn of the fifth century B.C. The fullest and most systematic presentation of the physicogeographical conceptions of the ancient Greeks was made by Aristotle in the fourth century B.C. His work Meteorologica examines various questions pertaining to general geography, including the interpenetration of the earth’s shells, the air and water cycle, the causes of various atmospheric phenomena, the origin of rivers, and the process of fluvial aggradation. The same questions were explored by Aristotle’s followers, the Peripatetics Theophrastus and Strato. Elements of physical geography are found in the writings of Eratosthenes (third to second century B.C.), Posidonius (second to first century B.C.), and Strabo (first century B.C. to first century A.D.).

The closed feudal society and the religious world view of the Middle Ages were inimical to the study of nature. The earth was depicted as flat and as being inhabited by fantastic beings. While the Arabs, along with certain other peoples of the Orient, held to the notion of the earth’s roundness, they made no substantive contribution to the description and interpretation of the natural world.

The great geographic discoveries of the 15th, 16th, and 17th centuries laid the foundations for a uniform geographic perspective. The earth was proved to be round, the world’s oceans were found to be one, and the approximate ratio of land to sea was established; the major sea currents and constant wind belts were discovered as well. Geographic descriptions during this period emphasized those natural phenomena (winds, tides, and currents) that were of practical importance for navigation. General geography, shifting toward practical applications, was made to serve the needs of navigation above all else. B. Varenius, summing up the great geographic discoveries in his scientific work Geographia generalis (1650), was the first to define geography as the natural science dealing with the entire surface of the earth as well as with its individual regions. Varenius emphasized the importance of experience as the source of geographic knowledge, and of mathematics as the foundation of geographic laws. In the second half of the 17th century and the first half of the 18th, ever-increasing interest was accorded to the study of physicogeographical phenomena—for example, by I. Newton, G. von Leibniz, E. Halley, and G.-L. de Buffon.

The development of general geography in Russia is chiefly associated with the works of M. V. Lomonosov, including On the Layers of the Earth (1763). The second half of the 18th century saw the publication of monographic studies of the natural world of various individual territories, such as S. P. Krasheninnikov’s Description of the Land of Kamchatka. The term “physical geography” came into general use, even though its subject matter was yet to be clearly defined. The progress of the natural sciences, and primarily of physics, favored the gradual transition—especially since the mid-18th century—from conceptions drawn from natural philosophy to scientifically based explanations of various natural processes on the earth’s surface, in the atmosphere, and in the ocean. What made this possible was the experimental study of many natural phenomena by means of such instruments as the barometer, thermometer, and hygrometer. An important advance in physical geography was the development of accurate topographic surveys and mathematically based chorographic maps. The subdivision of the earth’s surface into natural regional units was first undertaken in France and Russia in the second half of the 18th century.

In the first half of the 19th century, an important feature of the physicogeographical sciences was their close association with physics, of which they were often considered a branch; E. Kh. Lenz, for example, was one of the physicists actively involved in the development of physical geography. Later—especially under the influence of C. Darwin—a similarly close relationship was established with biology. In the course of the 19th century, the intensive specialization of physical geography resulted in the emergence of climatology, biogeography, hydrology, geomorphology, and soil science, or pedology.

This increasing differentiation in physical geography was accompanied by a growing interest in the study of relationships between individual natural components of the earth’s surface. A. von Humboldt (The Cosmos, vol. 1, 1845) assigned to physical geography the task of investigating the general laws and interrelationship of the various natural phenomena on the earth as a whole. In this context, he was particularly concerned with the relationship between vegetation and climate. In his studies of physical geography, Humboldt made extensive use of the methods of comparative geography and insisted on the need to apply the historical method. A similarly comprehensive approach to the study of natural phenomena can also be observed in the works of the Russian naturalists and travelers of the 1840’s–1860’s, such as E. A. Eversman, A. F. Middendorf, N. A. Severtsov, and I. G. Borshchov.

In the last quarter of the 19th century, the works of V. V. Dokuchaev laid the foundations of modern physical geography. In 1898, citing the theory of soils in support of his idea, Dokuchaev declared that a new science was needed to study the relationship and interaction among all the components of the natural world, both animate and inanimate; he formulated the law of zonality, as well as the principle of comprehensive physicogeographical research (including site investigation). Dokuchaev’s followers, such as A. N. Krasnov, G. N. Vysotskii, and G. F. Morozov, continued to explore the problem of zonality and the concept of the geosystem; their studies of intrazonal physicogeographical patterns led them to the concept of the geographical landscape. In 1913, L. S. Berg emphasized the unity of the geographical landscape’s components and the relationship between landscapes and natural zones. The theory of natural zones was used as a basis for the subdivision of Russia into physicogeographical regions (including its practical applications, as for example in agriculture, forest management, and forest planting for land reclamation purposes).

Working outside the framework of landscape geography, P. I. Brounov in 1910 formulated the concept of the earth’s outer shell, joining together the lithosphere, the hydrosphere, the atmosphere, and the biosphere. Brounov, in fact, considered it the object of physical geography to study the structure of this outer shell and the interaction of its parts. In the prerevolutionary period, geographers ignored this important idea, and the study of landscapes continued for some time on an independent course, unrelated to general geographic concepts. R. I. Abolin in 1914 came closest to the idea of the unity of the general and the particular in physical geography. He proposed a system of natural territorial complexes, from the earth’s outer, or epigenetic, shell to the basic territorial unit, or epifacies; at the same time, he clearly identified zonality and azonality as the two most important governing principles of physicogeographical differentiation. A similarly comprehensive approach marked the work of certain other Russian geographers who were then engaged in the study of the various components of the natural environment—for example, A. I. Voieikov, G. I. Tanfil’ev, and D. N. Anuchin.

Outside of Russia, physical geography was yet to be established as a scientific discipline by the turn of the 20th century, even though physicogeographical data were used to a considerable extent in descriptive area studies, and particularly in works of the French “human geography” school. The works of E. Herbertson and S. Passarge on natural regionalization and landscape science were notable examples of individual physicogeographical studies. Compendiums of general geography by such authors as E. de Martonne usually followed the principle of subdivision into branches.

In the USSR, the period following the Great October Revolution was marked by extensive investigations of various elements of the natural world, including climate, rivers, soils, and vegetation; increasing attention was devoted to complex physicogeographical problems, such as detailed physicogeographical regionalization and landscape mapping. In the 1920’s and 1930’s, V. I. Vernadskii’s ideas concerning the biosphere and the geological and geochemical role of living organisms were an important contribution to the general theory of physical geography. Theoretical work in physical geography during the 1930’s was chiefly influenced by L. S. Berg and his followers (known for their landscape studies, study of the interaction of individual landscape components, and investigation of the basic forms and factors in landscape dynamics) and by A. A. Grigor’ev (elaboration of the concept of the earth’s physicogeographical mantle, identification of its basic structural characteristics, and application of quantitative methods to the study of physicogeographical processes). The works of L. S. Berg, I. P. Gerasimov, and K. K. Markov represented substantive contributions to paleogeography.

Landscape science assumed increasing significance in the 1950’s and 1960’s; the main focus of interest was landscape surveying and landscape map design, which also involved such related questions as the taxonomy of geosystems, morphology and classification of landscapes, and physicogeographical regionalization. Among those who worked in these areas were D. L. Armand, N. A. Gvozdetskii, A. G. Isachenko, S. V. Kalesnik, F. N. Mil’kov, N. I. Mikhailov, V. S. Preobrazhenskii, N. A. Solntsev, and V. B. Sochava.

Another important aspect of physicogeographical research was represented by regional surveys focusing on the natural world in the USSR and other countries; geographers who contributed to such work include B. F. Dobrynin, S. P. Suslov, E. M. Murzaev, and M. P. Petrov. V. N. Sukachev may be cited for his work in biogeocenology, and B. B. Polynov in landscape geochemistry—both of which emerged at the intersection of physical geography and its related sciences. Others who contributed to the further development of general geography were S. V. Kalesnik, K. K. Markov, A. M. Riabchikov, and M. M. Ermolaev; their work was facilitated by the practical experience gained through comprehensive landscape studies as well as by the achievements of various physicogeographical sciences in the exploration of global processes—specifically, the earth’s radiation and heat balance, the global water cycle, the interaction of the atmosphere and the world ocean, and the long-term fluctuations in the heat regime and in humidification.

Physical geography—as we understand the term today—has remained a relatively limited field of study in many of the developed countries (including the USA, Great Britain, and France), where geography is viewed primarily as a social science; the content of physical geography has usually been restricted to the study of abiotic aspects of the natural world on the earth’s surface. According to some geographers in the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG), Austria, and Switzerland, geography is the study of the earth’s shell (Erdhülle), or geosphere, and of its component landscapes; in the particular case, however, this refers not merely to a natural system but to an integration of the human and the natural world. Nevertheless, landscapes are usually regarded as natural complexes in the context of such practical geographic investigations as those carried out by K. Troll and J. Schmithüsen in the FRG. This field of study has been named landscape ecology.

Interest in the study of geosystems has grown in other capitalist countries as well (USA, Canada, Australia, Great Britain, and France) as a result of practical needs—for example, in the areas of agricultural land assessment, forest management, and regional planning—under the stimulus of the critical problem of environmental protection. Elements of the theory of geosystems are also encountered in some compendiums of general geography, such as P. Birot’s. Since the 1960’s, studies in physicogeographical regionalization and landscape ecology have been actively carried forward by E. Neef, G. Haase, H. Richter, and G. Bartsch in the German Democratic Republic, J. Kondracki and T. Bartkowski in Poland, J. Demek, E. Mazur, M. Ruzicka, and J. Drdos in Czechoslovakia, M. Pécsi in Hungary, H. Grumazescu in Rumania, and P. Petrov in Bulgaria.

Current state, problems, and prospects. As it has developed in the USSR, physical geography is the synthetic science of all levels of natural complexes, from the geographic envelope to the landsape facies. The study of the geographic envelope includes research on the transfer of energy and mass among the components of the system, the cycle of matter, and changes in the structure of the system. Geographic landscapes are examined from the point of view of their origin, morphology, structure, function, dynamics, and development; their structural and functional aspects include energy conversion, gravitational mass transport, the hydro-logic cycle, the migration of chemical elements, the production of biomass, and the biogenic cycle. A current concern of physical geography is the study of landscape changes caused by human activity.

The comprehensive study of geosystems has dictated the adoption of a given methodology in physical geography. The traditional methods used in the geographic sciences—ranging from descriptions of geographic expeditions and the methods of comparative geography to cartographic and historical methods—have been supplemented by site investigations that include the application of geophysical and geochemical methods. Remote-sensing surveys are an important source of information for the study of inaccessible regions and of global physicogeographical patterns. In the effort to make field observations yield generally applicable theoretical conclusions, effective results are likely to be obtained through the use of mathematical methods, modeling of natural processes, and application of the principles of cybernetics and general systems theory.

The ideas and methods of physical geography have been applied in a variety of practical ways. Early in the 20th century the theory of landscapes, then still in its beginning stages, was already being applied to land assessment, forest management, and reclamation. After the Great Patriotic War of 1941–45, physical geography found practical application in such areas as engineering, reclamation work, urban construction, and recreation. What such work basically involved was the evaluation of geosystems from the standpoint of local living conditions and with respect to opportunities for development by various branches of the national economy.

Human activity, as it affects one or another element of the natural environment, disturbs the connections between the various elements of a geosystem and upsets the balance of energy, the water balance, the geochemical cycle, and the biological equilibrium within the geosystem. Given the continuity of the geographic shell and the interrelatedness of individual landscapes, the local effects of human activity are not limited to any given landscape but extend beyond its boundaries; factors that contribute to this spreading effect include the circulation of air masses, runoff, gravitational displacement of matter, and migrations of living organisms. Such wide-ranging—sometimes even worldwide—effects are ultimately reflected in the structure of the geographic envelope as a whole. In view of industry’s growing demand for natural resources, a set of rationally interrelated measures must be adopted for the protection and transformation of the natural world.

The fundamental task of physical geography today is to devise methods of purposeful regulation of the various landscape functions (such as the water cycle, the heat regimen, and biological productivity) and rational territorial organization—that is, the arrangement of areas on the basis of their designated purpose, use, and protection.

In providing a scientific basis for optimal utilization of the natural environment, physical geography comes close to ecology. Physical geography, however, is broader in scope, inasmuch as it embraces a more extensive system of relationships ranging over the entire natural world; it regards nature not only as man’s habitat but also as the environmental sphere of society’s productive activity. The tasks that face physical geography are the tasks of economic geography as well; an example of the mutual cooperation of these two disciplines is the collaboration of physical geographers and economic geographers in regional planning, evaluations of natural resources, and feasibility studies of large-scale regional economic projects that take into account both physical and economic geography.

The major trends of physical geography in the USSR are the growing attention devoted to the structure and dynamics of natural systems, the refinement of techniques, the effort to broaden the practical applications of physicogeographical research, the increasing concern with the effects of human activity on nature, and the attempt to work out the scientific foundations for optimal utilization of such activities.


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The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.

physical geography

[′fiz·ə·kəl jē′äg·rə·fē]
The study of the earth's surface features and associated processes.
McGraw-Hill Dictionary of Scientific & Technical Terms, 6E, Copyright © 2003 by The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.

physical geography

the branch of geography that deals with the natural features of the earth's surface
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005
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