The study of geography is about more than just memorizing places on a map. It’s about understanding the complexity of our world, appreciating the diversity of cultures that exists across continents. And in the end, it’s about using all that knowledge to help bridge divides and bring people together.
~ Barack Obama ~
For many people, if we say 'geography', they think of maps, data and having to identify the types of natural and built features of different areas of the world — but as Obama says above, geography is so much more than that. According to the Institute of Australian Geographers, the study of geography involves:
- analysis of the physical features of the earth and the atmosphere of the earth
- studies into how human activity affects different geographical features
- analysis of the effects of humans on the earth, including population distribution, resources and political activities.
It is important to state that the academic discipline of geography has many subdisciplines and subtopics. Today, we will discuss the geographic subsections of human geography, physical geography, and environmental geography along with the similar academic subject of cartography. But first, let's delve into the past and see where and how studies of this fascinating area of science started.
The 'Father of Geography' — Eratosthenes
According to Dr Karl Kruszelnicki (Australia's most popular scientist and science commentator), Eratosthenes was 'the guy who used just a stick and some maths to measure the circumference of the Earth'. The thing is — his methods got him within a few per cent of the actual value calculated today using expensive, high-tech geographical measuring equipment and data. That's pretty impressive!
Eratosthenes is known as 'the father of geography' for good reason — with widespread interests in science, astronomy, mathematics, philosophy and poetry, he pioneered many studies that form the basis of our knowledge, methods and techniques today. Apart from determining the circumference of Earth, some of his achievements include:
- calculating the tilt of the Earth's axis
- producing the first detailed map of the world
- explaining why the River Nile floods every year
- creating a timeline that recorded all events related to science, as well as political and literary events, since the siege of Troy
- developing the Sieve of Eratosthenes — one of the methods still used today to determine prime numbers
- inventing the armillary sphere which, for 1800 years, allowed astronomers to collect data on the positions of celestial objects
- paving the way for greater social understanding with his belief that members of society should be judged as individuals rather than classified into 'Greeks' and 'Barbarians'.
And he 'invented' geography — at least he coined the word we use for this discipline: geo (Greek word for 'Earth') and graphy (meaning 'field of study'). So, we have much to thank Eratosthenes for.
Despite his vast achievements during his lifetime, or perhaps because of them, Eratosthenes had his fair share of both fans and critics. He was commonly known by two nicknames, Beta and the pentathlete.
Beta is the second letter of the Greek alphabet and was used because Eratosthenes knew about everything, but was not the best (alpha) at anything.
A pentathlete needs to be good at five different types of sport but is unlikely to be a champion at one single sport, so the pentathlete referred to Eratosthenes' broad ability across a range of areas, none of which he solely specialised in.
As such, both of the nicknames Eratosthenes was referred to by could be used as either a compliment (breadth of knowledge and skill) or an insult (number one at nothing).
For his part, Eratosthenes called himself philologus — this comes from the Greek adjective philos (meaning 'one who loves'), the noun logos (meaning 'word') and the verb lego (meaning 'to speak intelligently'). Roughly translated, philologus can mean 'lover of learning' — certainly the most apt nickname for this great man.
Now, get ready for a wild ride as we explore our beautiful planet looking at three of the different types of geography.
History is a compass that you locate yourself on the map of human geography, politically, culturally, financially.
~ John Henrik Clarke ~
Human geography is a branch of the field of geography that considers essential geographic information such as the study of people, society, culture, economies, political events and the interactions people have with the natural environment.
For everyone to better understand human geography, it can be defined in layman's terms as the study of the human race.
Like all significant types of geography, human geography has various subsections that are worthy of consideration. The following are the most vital subbranches of human geography:
- Economic Geography: those who specialise in a career reviewing economic geography focus their attention on the way products are produced and distributed. Economic geographers are involved in the analysis of how wealth is distributed across the various areas and regions of the world. Subject matters such as transportation, international trade, development, real estate, gendered economies, political effects and globalisation are discussed to understand this discipline area better.
- Population Geography: this subsection of human geography mainly deals with the demographic distribution of people in a specific country, city, town or other geographic location. Often erroneously confused with demography, population geographers study the patterns of a group of people in connection to birth, marriage and death. This is also the case with demographers; however, population geography dives deeper into the subjects mentioned earlier and extracts more detail. It is important to state that many population geographers may spend their entire career researching a single society, community or region.
- Medical Geography: Ebola, the zika virus, the Asian flu and, of course COVID-19 are all viruses or outbreaks that have affected millions and originate from a single location. Who researches these epidemics to discover their causes and origin? Medical geographers! The discipline of medical geography involves studies of the spread of particular diseases. Charts, graphs, reports and maps are created to show the correlation between geography and public health. It's a perfect career for medical examiners who want to get to the bottom of things!
There you have it, three of the most popular subsections of human geography to better understand the field of geography as a whole.
Did you know that there are five themes of geography? Check out our informative article.
Physical geography and geology are inseperable scientific twins.
~ Roderick Murchison ~
What is physical geography? Well, for starters, physical geography is a significant discipline of greater academic subjects: geography and earth science.
Physical geography deals with the physical characteristics of the earth; this does not only refer to the earth's surface but what is under and around the exterior of the planet.
Also referred to as geosystems or physiography, physical geography has many subunits that are studied by academics at a level of higher education.
Yes, you heard that correctly, there are subsections of an essential subtopic of geography. Don't fret, hold on tight while we consider the following most noteworthy subdisciplines of physical geography:
- Biogeography: the result of the field of study of Alfred Russel Wallace, biogeography is a subunit of physical geography that examines the patterns of species distribution and the effects that occur from this process.
- Water Resources Geography: this is the study of how water resources are distributed and divided in specific geographic locations. Water resource geographers have a profoundly important job since they study water systems developed by humans and enhance them to maximise the efficiency of water collection and distribution worldwide.
- Climate Geography: an essential branch of physical geography that deals with the study of weather patterns and how they affect the overall climate of a country, continent, or another geographic region.
- Geomorphology: a specific field that is focused on the study of the surface of the earth. A geomorphologist examines the intriguing ways in which planet earth was formed and the processes that land formations continuously go through.
The four above mentioned subsections of physical geography are just a crumb of all the fascinating concepts and fields of study considered in physical geography. Notable subtopics include hydrology, glaciology, meteorology, coastal geography, oceanography, orology and potamology; that's a lot of ologies!
By taking some time to consider some of the honourable subdivisions of physical geography, an appreciation for geography and our beautiful earth are renewed.
In our changing world nothing changes more than geography.
~ Pearl S. Buck ~
What is environmental geography?
Also known as integrated geography or human-environment geography, the essential topic of environmental geography is the study of spatial aspects between humans and their environment; the consequences of this interaction is also discussed to raise awareness and highlight a need for change.
An understanding of environmental geography and how our actions affect the planet are needed now more than ever.
Our world is sick, and the statistics demonstrate that climate change is a serious issue that is continuously worsening day by day.
The following are some of the branches of environmental geography that are considered by students reviewing this discipline:
- Hazards: some hazards — human-made, natural, blended and ecological disasters — include fire, drought, earthquakes, floods, volcanoes and tornados. Why would researchers create these disasters? Simply put, to study the risk and try to determine solutions.
- Political Ecology: while studying the topic of political ecology, environmental geographers incorporate political, economic, cultural and social systems into the study of environmental change to determine the adverse effects humans are causing on the environment and possible methods to remedy these.
Other intriguing subtopics of environmental or integrated geography include systems theory, environmental perception, Marxian environmental geography and environmental governance.
It is important to state that environmental geography is not as complete as human or physical geography; however, it does not mean that it is of lesser importance. We need to know where we can improve and how we can save our planet before there is nothing left.
I've always been fascinated by maps and cartography. A map tells you where you've been, where you are, and where you're going — in a sense it's three tenses in one.
~ Peter Greenaway ~
What is cartography?
Cartography is the study and practice of mapping or making maps; it can be referred to as a science and an art. The term cartography was determined in 1859 from the French word, carta (card) and the Greek word, graphie (write or draw).
Maps have played a key role for thousands of years in many societies around the world.
Famous cartographers from history include the likes of Ptolemy, Eratosthenes, Al Idrisi, Fra Mauro, Nicolas de Fer, and Henry Pelham. Their written maps were used by many individuals for decades and have influenced modern-day cartographers to seek excellence.
The best and most accomplished cartographers know that a well-designed map must include detailed geographical information. The essential features of a great map include:
- ease of use — no-one wants to use a map that is difficult to follow or understand; therefore, experienced cartographers create plans that are accurate for their intended audience
- clarity — everything must be orderly and well-labelled to avoid confusion
- accuracy between the object and the map — the translation of physical space to a different medium such as paper or an electronic format should be recognisable.
Throughout the centuries, cartographers have adapted their methods to the various technological changes to ensure that people continue to use maps to find their way from one place to another.
A budding cartographer studies the different types of maps, such as city maps, contour maps, electronic maps, geological maps, reversed maps, road atlas, topographic maps, political maps and world maps.
Subtopics of cartography include celestial cartography and planetary cartography that can be studied by map lovers all over the world.
Career Paths if you Love Geography
It may be that, as a student, you loved your geographical studies at school. Perhaps you dedicated your spare time to finding out as much as you could through your own research, Google searches or scrolling of news websites like ABC Search. If you love something this much, it makes sense that you'd want to spend your life immersed in that area.
So — what can you do with a geography degree?
The study of geography, regardless of which discipline you choose, equips you with skills in:
- data collection and data management
- spatial data analysis
- statistical analysis
- retrieving, synthesising and communicating information
- research techniques and methods
- critical and creative thinking
- problem-solving through a range of techniques and methods.
Studies in geography involve the analysis of different sources — political, environmental, economic and social — and the synthesis of information gained to enable geographical understandings in relation to humans, the environment and the relationship between the two.
Upon graduation, geography students are considered highly employable across a range of areas, both in government and private enterprise, and not all of them necessarily directly related to geography.
You may decide to follow a second passion as well, perhaps with a double degree in a field such as meteorology, urban planning, academia or community welfare. Doing this certainly broadens your career options, allowing you to find employment in areas including (but certainly not limited to):
- climatology and meteorology
- community development
- social services and welfare
- tourism management
- public safety, defence and national security
- real estate and land development.
Other great career options you might want to look at (which are more grounded in geography itself) include:
Combine desk-based research with fieldwork to identify environmental issues, such as areas of water pollution, and work with government and non-government agencies and industries to assess the impact and propose solutions.
Geographical Information Systems Officer
If you love working with data, this role could be for you. A geographical information systems officer gathers and examines data and recommends its application in areas including defense, telecommunication, gas and transportation to benefit the environment.
The bulk of a conservation officer's role is to raise social awareness regarding the ways in which communities can enjoy their natural environment with minimal negative impact.
As with any careers, getting as much work experience as you can, even through volunteering, will see you well placed to work in a job you love.
In conclusion, geography is more than just knowing where France, Australia, or Canada are; it's a layered yet fascinating academic subject that covers many essential aspects of our earth and the people residing on it. Follow in the footsteps of famous geographers and dedicate yourself to a rewarding career as a geographer!