Sub-branches of Physical Geography

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Physical geography is one of the two primary branches of geography.  Listed here are sub-branches or sub-fields of physical geography.  

These sub-fields of physical geography study processes and patterns in the natural environment ranging from the oceans to physical land to the atmosphere. 

Biogeography

Animals and plants on Earth are usually distributed in specific patterns and biogeography is the discipline that is involved in this study. Biogeography studies the distribution of biological species and the geographic patterns that are a result.

Geographers use GIS to predict greater sage-grouse distribution in the American West.  Map: USGS, public domain.
Biogeographers use GIS to predict greater sage-grouse distribution in the American West. Map: USGS, public domain.

This field can be further broken down into biogeography related to islands, paleobiogeography, phylogeography, zoogeography, and phytogeography. 

Climatology

Geographers in this branch of geography are usually concerned with the investigation of the weather patterns of the Earth and the way in which they affect the climate as a result. Activities that are taking place within the atmosphere of the Earth are also studied in this discipline.

A weather station adjacent to the Haystack Creek avalanche path in Glacier National Park. Weather stations are used to measure wind speed and direction, air temperature, relative humidity, and net radiation measurements. Photo: Suzanna Soileau, USGS. Public domain
A weather station adjacent to the Haystack Creek avalanche path in Glacier National Park. Weather stations are used to measure wind speed and direction, air temperature, relative humidity, and net radiation measurements. Photo: Suzanna Soileau, USGS. Public domain

Climatologists study the climate as it is made up by weather conditions throughout history. This area of study can involve local climate science as well as global, or macro, climate changes. Climatologists can choose to study specific periods of time in history to focus their research or choose a location to further develop their research. 

Coastal Geography

Coastal geography focuses on areas where water meets land. Coastal weathering, or the impact of the ocean on these coastal environments, involves very unique processes.

This field involves the study of wave action, sediment movement, erosion, as well as how humans have altered coastlines. 

An oblique aerial photograph of Flaxman Island off the Alaska coast.   A tapped thermokarst lakes, caribou tracks, and ice-rich bluffs that are eroding can be observed in this photo.  Photo: Bruce Richmond/Ann Gibbs, USGS. Public domain.
An oblique aerial photograph of Flaxman Island off the Alaska coast. A tapped thermokarst lakes, caribou tracks, and ice-rich bluffs that are eroding can be observed in this photo. Photo: Bruce Richmond/Ann Gibbs, USGS. Public domain.

Environmental Geography

Environmental geography focuses on studying the interactions and impacts between humans and the natural world. Environmental geography links aspects of human geography with physical geography.

A forest being cleared for cattle grazing in Florida.  Photo: Randolph Femmer, USGS. Public domain.
A forest being cleared for cattle grazing in Florida. Photo: Randolph Femmer, USGS. Public domain.

Geomorphology

Geomorphology is the study of Earth’s landforms, terrain, and the processes that guide these changes. The landforms on Earth usually develop in interesting ways, stemming from tectonic movement and climatic influences. There are numerous processes that normally lead to the eventual vanishing of these landforms.

For instance, erosion is a major part of this field, as it has been discovered to be a major factor that influences the disappearance of landforms.

Geomorphology seeks to understand past landforms and what happened to them in order to make predictions about the future through field observations, physical experiments, and modeling. 

A sandstone formation in the Valley of Fire Nevada State Park caused by erosion.  Photo: Alex Demas, USGS. Public domain.
A sandstone formation in the Valley of Fire Nevada State Park caused by erosion. Photo: Alex Demas, USGS. Public domain.

Glaciology

Glaciology is a field of geography that studies ice sheets and glaciers on Earth’s surface.

Glaciers are studied by how they impact a landscape as they move or melt, as well as how ice sheets and their makeup impact climate studies. Glacial geology and snow hydrology are two subsets of glaciology. 

Coxe Glacier, Barry Arm, western Prince William Sound.  Photo: Don Becker, U.S. Geological Survey. Public domain.
Coxe Glacier, Barry Arm, western Prince William Sound. Photo: Don Becker, U.S. Geological Survey. Public domain.

Hydrology

The study of hydraulics concerns the amount of quality of water and its movement across the Earth’s surfaces.

The most basic understanding of hydrology comes down to what we know as the water cycle, or the hydrological cycle.

Hydrology can be split into researchers who study rivers (the study of rivers is called potamology), lakes, aquifers, and glaciers (although glaciology as a field goes much more in-depth).  

The Cuyahoga River in Ohio. Photo: Alex Demas, USGS. Public domain.
The Cuyahoga River in Ohio. Photo: Alex Demas, USGS. Public domain.

Landscape Ecology

Landscape ecology blends ecology and geography to show ecological processes.

Researchers in this field could use physical geographic evidence showing the flow of energy, material, and people to indicate changes in ecological landscapes.

A fire ecologist studies the Red Eagle Fire in Montana, 2007. Photo: USGS, public domain.
A fire ecologist studies the Red Eagle Fire in Montana, 2007. Photo: USGS, public domain.

Lithology

Lithology is the study of the physical composition of rocks. Using visual methods including core samples and microscopes, lithologists can determine the color, texture, grain, and composition of rock samples.

Lithology allows researchers to map and correlate rock types between different locations. 

A geologists takes rock samples on the eastern Seward Peninsula in Arkansas.  Photo: Susan Karl, USGS. Public domain
A geologists takes rock samples on the eastern Seward Peninsula in Arkansas. Photo: Susan Karl, USGS. Public domain.

Meteorology

Meteorology studies the atmosphere of the Earth as it relates to weather processes and predicting future weather patterns.

Meteorology concerns observable weather events. 

Weather at Kīlauea Point National Wildlife Refuge.  Jonathan Felis, Western Ecological Research Center. Public domain.
Weather at Kīlauea Point National Wildlife Refuge. Jonathan Felis, Western Ecological Research Center. Public domain.

Oceanography

The study of the world’s oceans and seas is known as oceanography. Oceanographers study marine biology and organisms, currents, waves, and the movement of water, as well as the physical makeup of sea floors.

Oceanographers seek to blend these complex areas of study into the field for a comprehensive view of the world’s oceans. 

An ocean cave on the coast of Capri Island, Italy.  Photo: John J. Mosesso, USGS. Public domain.
An ocean cave on the coast of Capri Island, Italy. Photo: John J. Mosesso, USGS. Public domain.

Orology

Orology is the study of mountains and their formation. Sub-branches of this field of study include the human impacts on mountainous landscapes as well as elevation-based mountain studies.

Climate studies regarding mountains, such as the rain shadow effect, are part of this field. 

Chief mountain in Montana. Photo: USGS, public domain.
Chief mountain in Montana. Photo: USGS, public domain.

Palaeogeography

Palaeogeography studies material that has been preserved in the soil record, or stratigraphic record, of Earth’s crust. This allows scientists to discover when certain species are thought to have lived.

Additionally, scientists can determine the past position of Earth’s continents based on palaeographic finds.

A lithologist, Dr. Robert Poirier, studies outcrops of the “Canepatch” and “Socastee” formations along the Intra-Coastal Waterway, near Myrtle Beach to study past records of sea level. Photo: Laura Gemery, USGS. Public domain.
A lithologist, Dr. Robert Poirier, studies outcrops of the “Canepatch” and “Socastee” formations along the Intra-Coastal Waterway, near Myrtle Beach to study past records of sea level. Photo: Laura Gemery, USGS. Public domain.

Quaternary Science

This is a specific field of study that concerns the Quaternary period, or the last 2.6 million years of Earth’s history.

The Quaternary period has two epochs. The Pleistocene which last from 2,580,000 to 11,700 years ago and the Holocene which spans from the end of the Pleistocene to the present.

Scientists use data recovered from this period to reconstruct estimations of past environmental conditions to show past climatic and environmental conditions that may have existed. 

Exposed rock ridges are thick Pleistocene lava flows that were confined between large glaciers. Glacier Peak, Washington, view north. Photo: Heather Bleick, USGS Public domain.
Exposed rock ridges are thick Pleistocene lava flows that were confined between large glaciers. Glacier Peak, Washington, view north. Photo: Heather Bleick, USGS. Public domain.

Soil Geography

Soil geography is often seen as a sub-field of geomorphology. Soil geography studies the distribution of soil across a section of terrain.

This field deals with the makeup of soil as well as soil classification and how soil relates to geomorphology, climate, biological life, and mineral content. 

Soil sampling in Eastern Colorado.  Photo: Tracy Yager, USGS Colorado Water Science Center. Public domain.
Soil sampling in Eastern Colorado. Photo: Tracy Yager, USGS Colorado Water Science Center. Public domain.

Water Resources Geography

This is a branch of geography that normally deals with the study of how water resources are generally managed in a particular region.

Geographers who are involved in this discipline normally look at the manner in which water is collected, distributed and, lastly, used in various places across the planet.

In addition to this, systems developed by humans that are meant to aid the entire process are also studied so that they can consequently be enhanced for maximum efficiency. 

A USGS river gauge for Chester Creek in Anchorage, Alaska.  Photo: Chris Zimmerman , USGS Alaska Water Science Center. Public domain.
A USGS river gauge for Chester Creek in Anchorage, Alaska. Photo: Chris Zimmerman , USGS Alaska Water Science Center. Public domain.

Related Resources on Geography

This article was co-written with Caitlin Dempsey.

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