Physical Systems

Day three, time to get physical with the next two standards which fall under Element 3, Physical Geography. This element covers quite a bit – everything from climatology to geomorphology is fair game for Physical Geography. While only two US Geography standards are specifically Physical Geography, these are essential parts of Geography and we shouldn’t underestimate Physical Geography’s importance to our understanding of the world.

7 ) The Physical Processes That Shape the Patterns of Earth’s Surface

8 ) The Characteristics and Spatial Distribution of Ecosystems on Earth’s Surface

The Earth is a dynamic environment which is made up of a number of elements. National Geographic’s Xpeditions page lies out four categories:

“those operating in the atmosphere (i.e., climate and meteorology), those operating in the lithosphere (e.g., plate tectonics, erosion, and soil formation), those operating in the hydrosphere (e.g., the circulation of the oceans and the hydrologic cycle), and those operating in the biosphere (e.g., plant and animal communities and ecosystems).”

It is important to understand the interactions between these categories in order to appreciate their impact on the world around us. Examples of the more extreme end of these impacts include earthquakes which originate in the lithosphere, hurricanes and typhoons which are tied to both the atmosphere and the hydrosphere, and wild fires which come out the biosphere. Other examples have a less ominous aspect such as having an idea of what areas are the best for skiers, knowing where not to build a house (stay out of the flood plains), and even knowing what areas are best for growing strawberries. As GI Joe said, “knowing is half the battle” and by knowing about the physical processes that impact the Earth and the people that inhabit its surface, we can better understand the world we live in and even help make it better.

Standard 8 looks at specific types of physical regions on the the Earth’s surface. Ecosystems are diverse assemblages of plants and animals that share an environment. These assemblages evolve from a distinct mixture of climate, terrain, soils, etc… and are relatively stable unless impacted by a significant external force such as drought or fires. Human effects on ecosystems can also be far-reaching and it is important for students to understand the reciprocal nature of the human/environment interaction. While we have often discussed the importance of sustainability in terms of the impact of human actions on resources that we need, but sustainability is just as important to maintaining the balance within existing ecosystems.

While Physical Geography may not often get the attention that Human Geography or GIS do, it is still an essential component in the discipline of Geography as a whole, and it is important that we promote it as well.


Written by

Jesse is Instructor in Geography and a PhD candidate in Geography focusing on the integration of phenomenology and geospatial technologies to study prehistoric cultural landscape. He is a GIS Professional and Registered Professional Archaeologist and holds an MA in Geography and a BS in Anthropology with a concentration in archaeology.