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Fields of Study in Physical Geography

The courses GEOG-1201(3) Introductory Atmospheric Science and GEOG-1202(3) Introductory Earth Science are essentially an overview of many distinct disciplines within the subject area of Physical Geography. These distinct disciplines include:

  • Biogeography
  • Climatology/Meteorology
  • Geology
  • Geomorphology
  • Hydrology 

Biogreography is a sub-discipline within physical geography which attempts to show relationships between soils and vegetation and how man has manipulated (and often abused) soil-vegetation systems. Biogeography is therefore a subject area which makes use of a basic background in physical geography so that
1) the influences of geomorphology, geology and climate on soil type differentiation and properties can be better appreciated, and
2) the influences of both climate and soil on vegetation can be more clearly understood.

As soils with their associated vegetation covers form dynamic systems with nutrient inputs and outputs they can be modelled to see how natural ecosystems "tick." These soil-vegetation systems can then be manipulated to see how man has or can suffer or benefit from ecosystems, thereby manipulating nutrient cycles through these systems -- he has often done this very inefficiently. It is therefore the aim of biogeography to better present an understanding of these soil-vegetation systems and their potential to withstand human manipulation and support human populations. We are all, after all is said and done, completely dependent on these manipulations as food production is essentially the applied art of soil-vegetation systems modification.

Climatology looks at how the weather system has behave in the past and in the present as well as the relationships between these climates and the physical and human environments. Today scientists are studying both how climate of the past and present change as well as how best to prepare for the effects of weather vagaries. From these studies they hope to better predict future climates.

Physical Geography provides an excellent grounding in physical geology which can be very useful as background material for a continuing programme in geology. The department offers 2 half courses, GEOG-2215(3) Mineralogy and Petrology and GEOG-2216(3) Physical Geology. These courses provide a theoretical and practical introduction to the primary areas of geology, namely, mineralogy, petrology, historical, structural plate tectonics and palaeontology. This approach will give a clear understanding of what geology is to those who may wish to continue in this area. Both courses have  full laboratory programmes which concentrate on 4 areas of expertise:

  1. Hand specimen identifications of both minerals and rocks, including precious and semi-precious metals and gems.
  2. The correct procedures for optical mineralogical identifications of mineral properties under ordinary, polarized and conoscopic viewing.
  3. The methods of reading and interpreting geological structures from geological maps, an essential part of exploration geology.
  4. The identification of fossils.

Put most simply, geomorphology is the study of landforms of the earth's surface and the processes which have produced them. As a sub-discipline of the Earth Sciences, it has its roots in both Physical Geography and Geology, with very important contributions from engineering and soils science. Its objectives range from the descriptive classification of landforms to the understanding of the physics of earth-shaping processes. Valid subject material for geomorphic study may range in scale from minor scratches on a rock outcrop to entire landscapes, or from the effects of small rills on a hillside to those produced by continental ice sheets several thousands of metres thick. Landforms and landscapes also evolve through time and the study of how and why they change is an important objective for geomorphologists. Indeed, many landscapes can only be properly understood in terms of events long past and the unravelling of their history is one of the most challenging areas of geomorphology. 

Another description of geomorphology might be that it is the study of the redistribution of the earth's surface materials -- the acquisition of 'dirt' in one place producing an erosional landform, the movement of this material by water, wind, ice, or gravity to another site where a depositional landform results. Thus geomorphologists also study the transportation of sediment and internal characteristics of deposits to understand the sequence of events which produced them. In addition, because the surface of the earth is the foundation on which most of man's activities take place, geomorphologists have much to contribute to the solution of particular human problems; this is the sub-field of applied geomorphology and includes such topics as the understanding of why landslides occur, how rivers may react to manipulation, the problems a surging glacier might create, or where sand and gravel resources might be found. The methods a geomorphologists uses to solve a particular problem may involve any or all of careful field observation and measurement, map and air photo interpretation, laboratory analysis, the application of mathematical and statistical techniques and, of course, sound reasoning necessary to correctly interpret the data obtained.

Hydrology is the study of water as it occurs and moves on and under the earth's surface and hydrologists are responsible for the measurement and inventory of Canada's freshwater supplies, providing the primary data on which water resource decisions are based. Thus a significant component of hydrologic activity is devoted to the development and improvement of accurate measurement techniques. At one of its margins, the field of hydrology merges with the atmospheric sciences and is frequently called hydrometeorology. At its core, however, hydrology is concerned with what happens to the rain and snow once it reaches  the ground -- how and when will it run off in rivers, how much will penetrate the ground, how it moves underground, how much will evaporate from the ground and plant surfaces, etc. While the development of accurate models of the behaviour of water is a worthy scientific objective in itself, hydrology is very much an applied science which attempts to answer questions of societal importance. The forecasting of floods, the detemination of the design size of a culvert, a floodway, or a storm sewer system, the estimation of water supplies for reservoirs, the determination of the safe rate at which water can be pumped from an aquifer, the prevention of soil erosion -- these are all important human problems which hydrologists seek to solve. The drainage basin of the Red River is an excellent example of the interaction between man and his hydrologic environment. It is one of Canada's most serious flood hazard zones and the flood control system is the most ambitious in the country. Ground water quality and availability are serious concerns in many parts of the basin. Land drainage schemes are among the most elaborate on the continent. The basin has suffered from serous drought in the past and may do so again. Lakes in and around the basin provide a major recreation outlet for the urban population and source of income for fisherman. All these (and many others) are problems which the hydrologist seeks to solve.

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