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Physical Geography: Defining Physical Geography

This guide highlights the library and internet resources for Physical Geography.

Introduction to Physical Geography

‘Physical geography focuses upon the character of, and processes shaping, the land-surface of the Earth and its envelope, emphasizes the spatial variations that occur and the temporal changes necessary to understand the contemporary environments of the Earth. Its purpose is to understand how the Earth’s physical environment is the basis for, and is affected by, human activity. Physical geography was conventionally subdivided into geomorphology, climatology, hydrology, and biogeography, but is now more holistic in systems analysis of recent environmental and Quaternary change. It uses expertise in mathematical and statistical modelling and in remote sensing, develops research to inform environmental management and environmental design, and benefits from collaborative links with many other disciplines such as biology (especially ecology), geology and engineering’ (K. Gregory 2002). However, R. Inkpen (2005) makes the soundly based claim that there is not a single history of physical geography.

Between 1850 and 1950, the main ideas that had a strong influence on the discipline were uniformitarianism, evolution, exploration and survey, and conservation (G. P. Marsh 1864). In the 1960s, ‘a new type of physical geography began to emerge that accentuated a concern with dynamic processes of earth systems. This new approach, which has evolved to the present, is founded on basic physical, chemical, and biological principles and employs statistical and mathematical analysis. It has become known as the “process approach” to physical geography…Over the past fifteen years, physical geographers, who have always acknowledged that the systems they study are complex, have turned to emerging ideas in the natural sciences about nonlinear dynamical systems and complexity to explore the relevance of these ideas for understanding physical-geographic phenomena’ (Rhoads (2004) AAAG 94, 4). ‘Advances in remote sensing, geographical information systems and information technology have enabled a more global approach; a second new development has been the advent of a more culturally-based approach throughout many branches of physical geography. By 2000 a series of issues can be identified including the increasingly holistic trend, greater awareness of a global approach and of environmental change problems, and of the timely opportunities which can arise from closer links with human geography and with other disciplines’ (Gregory (2001) Fennia 179, 1).

Harden (2011) Phys. Geog. 33, 1, 1 writes that ‘while the sub-discipline of physical geography remains firmly grounded in research undertaken to explain Earth’s landscapes and its geomorphic, hydrologic, atmospheric, cryospheric, petrologic, and biogeographical processes, which change over time and space, the extent of the human “footprint” on this planet challenges physical geographers to pay greater attention to the role of people in environmental change and the interactions between people and their environments’.

Mayhew, S. (2015). "Physical geography." In A Dictionary of Geography. Oxford University Press. Retrieved 23 Mar. 2017.

This page focuses on general resources for Physical Geography. For specific subjects under Physical Geography, see the other pages in this guide.

In the Library's Collection

How do I find books about physical geography? You can start in the library's online catalog with the following subject search: "physical geography." That search finds 795 items under 322 subject headings. Also look at the Related subjects. These related subjects include Coastal changes, Geomorphology, Paleogeography and Shorelines. There are more related subjects too. Just try your terms as subject searches.

The Library of Congress (LC) classification for Physical Geography ranges from GB 1 through GB 5030. Most of the books in this range will be in Kresge Physical Sciences Library. There are some books in Baker/Berry Library, but most are in Kresge. Other call number ranges for subjects under Physical Geography include:

GC 1 through GC 1581 Oceanography

QE 501.4 .P3 Paleogeography

Introductory reading(s)

Selected book titles

Journal articles & titles

Articles and other writings about Physical Geography can be found in many publications. Our collection includes several journals which look at Physical Geography. To find them, do the following subject search in the online catalog : "physical geography periodicals." Below are links to the indexes GeoBase and GeoRef. Also included is a short list of some of the journal titles we have in our Library's collection. You can use an article index, physically browse the collection or use the Summon box below to find articles.


Dartmouth Users: Using Summon from off-campus? You'll need VPN for access to full-text.

Internet resource(s)

The following are a list of Specialty Groups within the AAG which deal with some aspect of Physical Geography.