Arturo Flores and Bradley Miller

Learning Objectives
  • Discuss the concept of geography.
  • Understand the relationship between geography and soil science.

Keywords: geography, human and physical geography, spatial distribution.

Introduction to geography

The most basic form of geography answers to “Where are things located.” However, it is more complex and dynamic than that. Geography is the science that studies the Earth’s surface and the phenomena occurring in it from a spatial perspective. It explores ‘where’ phenomena occur and tries to explain the ‘why’ it occurs there. Geography studies single and independent features, like geographic landforms and places, or complex events, like human migrations and soil type distribution.

World map created in 1689. It shows the continents in different spheres to simulate the spheric shape of the Earth. The image is surrounded by illustrations of mythology and events that probably occurred in the past.
World Map by Gerard van Schagen (1698)

The geographic space includes a delimited area where natural elements from the environment (eg., rivers, mountains, vegetation, climate) interact with humans or with other environmental elements. In the beginning, human settlements and cultural expansion occurred to where natural conditions where more favorable for agriculture, thus, for nourishment. Geographically speaking, soil fertility tends to be higher in alluvial systems (next to big rivers or regions prone to flooding). It was expected that cities would develop closer to this fertile land enriched with alluvial sediments brought in by water bodies, such is the case of the Egyptians in the Nile River and the Southern Asia cultures along the Mekong River. Higher precipitation rates and higher average temperatures throughout the year tend to facilitate and boost agricultural yield. Whilst the Norse struggled to grow few crops during the relatively ‘warm’ summer months in Greenland, people in Mesoamerica where able to harvest corn up to three times per year. This is the result of different geographical conditions, including climatic patterns and topography that regulate soil development and weather. From a different point of view, more ‘favorable’ geographic conditions are not always so beneficial. Mayans exploited fertile soils so intensely, that soil quality decreased, fertility was reduced, and agriculture significantly limited to new deforested land through slash-and-burn systems. This caused massive Mayan migrations towards more ‘fertile’ land (south) and started a slow but constant decay of the civilization, leaving behind impoverished soils. Also, closeness to river systems may facilitate navigation and communication between cities. However, catastrophic flows have limited the rise of human settlements along them, such is the case along the Yangtze River basin in China. This shows how the geographical space is a 2-way system, in which natural elements and human distribution affect and are affected by their own action.

Focus areas

Geography has two main focus areas: humans and the Earth. Human geography emphasizes human activities in the geographical environment, and physical geography focuses on the landscape and the process occurring in it. Yet, both try to provide an explanation for phenomena correlated with space and sometime with time as well.

Two maps showing the difference between human and physical geography. The First shows the Eurasian expansion. And the second map includes a temperature map from the continental USA showing the higher temperatures in the south compared to the northern region.
LEFT: Example of Human geography map about the Eurasian expansion. RIGHT: Physical geography map representing the temperatures across the Unites States.

Human geography is emphasized in the spatial distribution of people in respect to the natural environment. Some of the subdisciplines include cultural, economic, historic, political, and urban geography. It is commonly associated with social sciences because they work together to understand the human behavior. It differs from conventional social sciences in that human geography also includes the spatial dimension of the feature being studied. For example, economics is focused on understanding how the market operates, but economic geography also wants to explain how wealth and markets are distributed within a country. Embedded in human geography, some understanding of the landscape becomes useful to understand human distribution or cultural spatial patterns.

The landscape is all the visible space captured by the human eye at one specific moment in time. Each one of the shapes that exist in the landscape are called landforms, and some include mountains, volcanos, valleys, and plateaus. Because landforms regulate the flow of wind and water through the landscape and these are eroding and weathering factors, it is possible to conclude that landforms are the reason why landscapes are the way they are. However, the explanation for this is much more complex and requires a good understanding of the Earth’s surface and processes. This is where physical geography takes place.

Physical geography aims to explain why the landscape has a particular shape in the place where it is located. It is focused on all the natural features and processes shaping the Earth. To do so, physical geography needs to understand how the different environmental elements interact with each other and affect the Earth’s surface. Hence, it studies the different layers that constitute the Earth: air, soil, water, and biology (atmos-, litos-, hydros-, and biosphere, respectively). Some of the subdisciplines include pedology, geology, geomorphology, hydrology, and biogeography. All of these emphasize the study of the physical features of the Earth and the dynamic interaction among them.

Key Takeaways
  • Geography studies spatial patterns of phenomena.
  • Geography is not only applied for natural environments, but also in social sciences.


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Introduction to Soil Science Copyright © 2023 by Arturo Flores and Bradley Miller is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.