Introduction to Physical Geography

This is the first content-based lecture
for physical geography and I’m just going to start off talking a little bit
about what is physical geography and why it’s important. This is all material
that’s related to chapter 1. Before we get into that material from
chapter 1, just let me very quickly justify my existence and why
are you taking GEOG/ENVI A 111 and why is it a GER, and what are those GERs for?
I know a lot of people don’t appreciate them. This is a GER that is, of course, a
natural science GER, designed for non-science majors. The idea behind
these GERs is to expose people who otherwise might not take the sciences to
appreciate their importance, how scientific inquiry works, and how we can
understand natural processes that shape the world around us. And, then, be able to
relate these to ourselves a little bit. This all seems like a pretty noble endeavor
and a very important one as well. In my opinion, GEOG A111 is really an
excellent non science GER. For students who are entering into or interested in
environmental science, GEOG A111 is a gateway course that
lays the groundwork for a lot of the things that are discussed in ENVI A21,
though it’s not a prerequisite for that course. ENVI A211 deals a little bit more
with issues related to the environment, so things like climate change and
pollution of the air and the water, things that we won’t get into in
GEOG A111. But certainly the basic processes that help us to understand
those things will be addressed in this course. So let’s just briefly talk about
“why geography?” as a GER course. The first thing to say is that geography is
often very different from what people think it’s going to be. Oftentimes, people
think it’s just going to be sort of this boring recitation of where mountains are,
where rivers are, etc. Geography, instead, tries to be much a more process
oriented discipline that tries to interweave a lot
of different materials into an understanding of the world. So it’s very
interdisciplinary in nature, which you’re going to see in this course and which,
again, makes it a pretty good GER. You’ll see over the course of this semester
that we’ll talk about everything from weather and climate to basic geology and
geomorphology to soils and ecosystems and weave them together so
that people can understand the world around them a little bit better. And
that’s really what the discipline of geography is about, in the broadest sense.
It’s sometimes referred to as a spatial science because geographers are
interested in mapping things. They’re interested in understanding global
patterns and local patterns and how they relate to one another and relate to
humans. There are some key thing themes that come up again and again in the
discipline of geography and this is something that is addressed by the
textbook and is worth reading a little bit about, because it really helps you to
understand where geography is coming from. Since geographers try to do so
many different things, in terms of understanding the world, it’s often the
themes that really tie the discipline together – things like where are places?
But not just the where of places, but how does *Iocation* really impact the way we make
decisions about the world. What are *places* like? Why are there certain
processes that influence the world in ways that really change it in the way
that we think about it? Geographers are also interested in
*region*, the idea that we can make big generalizations about the world so that
we can understand the world as a series of interrelated places that often bear a
lot in common with other places that are similar to them. We’ll see that for
sure, particularly in the climate section of the course. Geographers are also
interested in *movement*. Over the course of this semester movement really will refer
to things like the movement of wind and precipitation it won’t be as involved in
the movement of human related issues, which oftentimes plays a big role in that
theme. And then the final theme that I have here and that
the textbook talks about as well is the *human/environment relationship*, which of
course is not something that only geographers do but it’s certainly
something that geographers have been interested in a very long time. How does
the basic environment impact humans and how do humans impact it? We’ll get
into some of that in this course although a lot of that is reserved for
ENVI A211 and also the social science GEOG 101 course. The key tools that are used by
geographers include maps, spatial data, and scientific methodology – all these we
will be touching on in various ways in this course so that you’ll get an idea
of how geographers actually do their work. And we’ll be applying
both the themes and also the tools to really understand global patterns of the
environment in this course. Now it’s worth noting and this is very important,
especially for students in a basic physical geography course like this, that
geography is about more than just the natural sciences. There’s a whole human
side to geography as well. Now this course won’t address human geography
very much but GEOG 101 does and in that course, rather than focusing on
things like weather and climate and landforms (though we might touch on those
things a little bit) we’re really looking at human patterns. Human places, human
movement, etc. But both forms of geography, physical and human, are scientific in
nature. What is science? Well, science is a systematic observational search for
knowledge that uses what’s called empiricism. Empiricism being data that
can be collected by our senses to help us understand the world. Science is one
of the branches of philosophy that include things like metaphysics and
aesthetics and logic and ethics. What really distinguishes science from all
those other branches of philosophy is its exclusive use of that systematically
collected empirical information. That scientific information or data is then used in the scientific method to reach
conclusions about the world and how the world works. Scientific knowledge is
different from other forms of knowledge in that it really relies on this ability
to look at and talk about what we can see, what we can measure, what we can
observe about the world. As a result of this, science can play a really important
role in setting public policy, because it’s one of the few things in humanity
that isn’t just based upon our opinions or our beliefs, it’s really based upon
the facts that we can see. Now it’s not perfect and it’s important to be able to
understand that science doesn’t always provide perfect results, but it provides
a language that is common across all cultures that we can use to try to agree
upon our basic understanding of the world. And, as a result of that,
understanding science, both natural science and the social sciences, is
really an important part of a broad liberal education. And, by liberal
education, I’m not referring to a conservative versus liberal education,
but rather this idea that in a liberal democracy in order to have citizens who
are well educated and can help to produce the freedoms that we believe in,
people need to be liberally or freely educated. So let’s get a little bit
into some of the basic physical geography that’s addressed in the
textbook, beyond the sort of introductory scientific information. The first thing
that’s talked about in the textbook that sort of deals with the content of
physical geography is the issue of location, which is a key theme in
geography, and the way that we find places on the earth. Now this is
information that you’re not probably going to get in any of the assignments
that we’re looking at but you’ll always be using latitude and longitude
particularly in the Google Earth assignments that you’re completing. The
earth is, of course, spherical. The way that geographers
locate places on the earth is through two basic types
of lines – the lines of latitude which are also known as parallels that emanate
from the equator, which is zero degrees, and move parallel towards the north pole
or the South Pol. As you go farther and farther north you eventually get up
to a ninety degree angle at the pole so any place can be located north or south
of the Equator between 0 and 90 degrees. Longitude, on the other hand,
breaks up the planet in a circular way. if you’re looking at the earth from
above the pole, there is the circle of the planet – 360 degrees. There is one
meridian called the prime meridian, which is designated as zero, and it runs
between the North Pole and the equator, bisecting Greenwich England –
as a result of England’s important place during the time that mapping conventions
were being developed. Then, as you take a look at that prime meridian line on the
other side of the planet, there is another line which is a hundred and
eighty degrees. Any place on the planet is either east or west of that
prime meridian and they meet together at a hundred and eighty degrees, on the
other side of the planet, which is where you actually have the International
Dateline. Time zones are based on lines of longitude, about every 15 degrees of
longitude produces a new time zone. But, of course, they really become sort of
crazy constructions once you start to mess with political boundaries
and things like that. Here are some diagrams taken from the
text that show how lines of latitude and longitude are formed. It’s important
for you to review these and have an understanding of them. Here’s the map
that shows time zones around the world, you can see that they are broken up, generally speaking, along lines of longitude, although of course there’s a
lot of variation. We’ll be looking at maps
a lot in this course both in the textbook and you’ll also be using maps
from time to time in assignments. A couple things that are important to know
about map is that map scale really determines how big a map is compared to
the real world. There are a couple of ways to represent scale. The one that most of
us prefer and are used to is the graphic scale, which is this little line that
shows how many miles an inch covers, or something like that.
Geographers tend to use a fractional scale instead, which shows what one of
anything on the map represents in the real world.
Many topographic maps in Alaska are at a scale of one to 63,360, which means
one inch equals sixty-three thousand three hundred and sixty inches in the
real world, which happens to be a mile. But it could also be one
fingernail length would equal sixty three thousand three hundred and sixty
fingernail lengths, it really doesn’t matter that much. The idea is that we’re using
that scale to understand how big or how small things are on the map. Maps are
also projected from a spherical surface onto a flat surface and that often
creates distortions both in the size of things and also in the shape of things
as well. We try to mitigate that more and more these days by projecting a map onto
a three-dimensional representation of the earth, as Google Earth does, so we’re
really minimizing those distortions that take place. Now maps, ultimately, are
symbolizing in the real world so we can understand it a little bit better. There are all sorts of different types of thematic and topographic maps that
help us to symbolize the real world. Some of the most common of these thematic
maps include shaded maps, also known as choropleth maps, different shapes or dots
or different lines that represent things. On topographic maps, contour lines help
us to visualize the surface of the earth and physical features are often shown
with different colors showing vegetation or glaciers or things like that. Let’s just
look at a couple of maps right now. This is a shading map that shows population
density in the United States, it comes from the Census Bureau. It’s a classic
choropleth map. This map right here comes from my friend Brian Brettschneider,
who’s a climatologist here in Alaska (you’ll be hearing more about him later).
This map classifies different weather stations in Alaska
according to specific climate classification categories. These are
things you will become much more familiar with over the course of the
semester. Here different colors and different shapes show different types of
climate classifications. The type of map you would be using most regularly in
this class particularly as you explore a different region of the world are
topographic maps. Topographic maps use little brown lines called contour lines
to help us to see the shape of the surface of the earth. For every line you
cross you go up or you go down a certain number of feet or meters. This is a map,
right here, very interesting, that shows a number of steep little escarpment in an
area but also some sinkholes. As well, you can see that vegetation is shown in
green, lakes are shown in blue, and you’ve got other symbols that show human
features here as well. Here are some more topographic maps, one showing a sandspit
jutting out into the ocean, another showing a very steeply pitched terrain
in another part of the world. In addition to using maps, increasingly geographers
are using other sorts of spatial information to understand the world. This
includes satellite imagery, which you’ll be looking at in this class over the
course of the semester, particularly on Google Earth, and also the broad set of
information, geographic and spatial data, known as geographic information and is
projected through geographic information systems like Google Earth, where you are
able to layer data so that you can see – not only in the case of Google Earth
satellite images – but you can also see topography. And you can put other
information on top of that as well. Now geographers who are professional
tend not to use Google Earth as much as they use other geographic information
systems and you can learn about those in courses taught at UAA in the College of
Engineering in particular, but in this course we’ll be using Google Earth, it’s
just sort of an introduction to the power of GIS and what it can do for us
in helping us to understand the world. So this is just some basic introductory
material into physical geography. This lecture is intended just to reinforce
the stuff that you’ll be reading about in the chapters and also the outcomes
and questions that you are given in each topic module.

1 thought on “Introduction to Physical Geography

  1. I agree about the reasons behind GERs, but at the expense of money and extra 2 years added to a bachelors degree for unrelated majors it seems very inefficient and almost a way to keep people in school longer to pay more money to that school which is all a business scheme. If others want exposure to other (extra) criteria this is where the internet and youtube is for which is free, and not 1000s of dollars (hence why I am here watching this video). ANYWAY this is a great video and I completely support you spreading education to others like this.

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