1a:  “Essentials of Geography”

Geosystems, 4th Canadian ed (4CE)*, pp.2-20 (top) ( Geosystems, 3rd Canadian ed (3CE)*, pp. 2-18 (top))

* Note that you may be using one of two editions of Geosystems:  for convenience I will use abbreviations:

  • if you have Geosystems, 4th Canadian edition 2016, I will use the abbreviation:  4CE (most of you will have this one)
  • if you have Geosystems, 3rd Canadian edition 2013, I will use the abbreviation:  3CE

A used copy of the text is fine — you don’t need a special code or anything like that except for the supplementary resources which you can purchase if you wish … but are not required!

“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth …”  

Genesis 1:1 

Blessed art Thou, 0 Lord, our God, King of the universe, who hast placed such beauty in Thy world.”

 Ancient Jewish benediction

“Let all creatures who are in heaven, on earth, in the sea, and under the earth give praise, honour, glory, and blessing to the Lord,  for all he suffered for us, and for all he has done and will do for each one; for he is our strength and our salvation; he  only is good, he only most high, omnipotent, admirable, glorious, and most holy, and most worthy to be praised and blessed forever and ever.” –   Francis of Assisi

**There is a video version of this lecture here: https://youtu.be/XyFTe0G4yYg

**The exam is based on the content in these notes, so please print them off to study from.

 I. INTRODUCTION … to Geography

A.  Background to the course

This course is an introduction to “physical geography” or “earth and atmospheric sciences” or  We will look at:

  • the physical structure of the earth and atmosphere, and
  • natural processes that shape the surface of the earth and atmosphere.
  • the distribution of living organisms within the earth/atmosphere system
  1.   The study of the physical structure of the earth and the processes that shape the earth is called geomorphology (“geo” = earth; “morph” = form/shape; “ology” = study of).  This is the focus of this course, GEOG 100.
  1.   The study of the atmospheric structure and processes includes two parts:

a.  climatology – the study of climate and long-term atmospheric conditions

b.  meteorology – the study of weather and day-to-day atmospheric conditions.

These are components of GEOG 101, offered alternate years.

  1.   The study of the distribution of living organisms is called biogeography.  This is also studied in GEOG 101. 
B. “Geography”

These sciences are all aspects of a broader discipline called “geography.”  “Geography” literally means “description of the earth” (from the Greek words: “geos” – earth, and “grapho” – write).

As soon as you start recognizing that things are different in different locations – whether it’s noting that there is a creek here and not over there, or that there is a house over there and not here – you are studying geography!  When you walk/cycle/drive from one place to another, you are doing geography!  Geography seeks to describe and explain the differences that occur in different places.

  • Those differences can be naturally occurring (hills, soils, trees, weather, climate)
  • Those differences can be human creations (towns, roads, political boundaries, industries, ethnic groups)

Geography, along with history, philosophy, and religion, is one of the oldest disciplines of study. It first developed with the early Greeks who were concerned about the nature of the universe and the origin of things.

  • For example: Herodotus (484-425 BC), historian of the Persian Wars, spent much time discussing the lands, peoples, economies and cultures of the Persian Empire in order to explain the causes and progression of the wars.
  • Strabo (64 BC – 20 AD) defined geography as the attempt to “describe the known parts of the inhabited word  … to write the assessment of the countries of the wood (and) to treat the differences between countries. “

Early geographers:

  • measured the earth
  • devised the first longitude/latitude grid
  • drew sophisticated maps
  • described known territories physically, socially and culturally
  • tried to explain climatic and cultural variations
  • described river systems
  • discussed cycles of erosion and deposition
  • discussed the dangers of deforestation
  • emphasised that humans are active participants in a cultural – physical partnership

Geography has been described as the “mother of all sciences” because from it have sprung: meteorology (weather), climatology (climate), geomorphology (landforms), geology (rocks and minerals), pedology (soil science), environmental studies,  sociology, economics, urban studies, political science, cultural anthropology, etc.  These studies led to further development in mathematics, physics, chemistry, and biology as early “natural philosophers” (as early scientists were called) tried to understand and describe their world.

These disciplines tend to look at specific aspects of the world in isolation from other influences and forces.  But the real world is not like that.  Economic activity happens in a real world context.  Soils exist within a complex matrix of climate, weather, geology, biology, and human activity.

The Earth is a complicated place!   Human activity and natural processes are intimately inter-related.  Geographers try to look at things holistically (as a complex, interconnected whole).  Geographers try to see the Earth as a complete entity:  an interacting set of physical, chemical and biological systems that also interact with human behaviour, economics, and political processes to create the physical and social landscape we experience.

Geography is not nearly as “pure” as science as physics … because it is always rooted in the messiness of the real world

For instance, human activity dramatically impacts the physical environment:

  • Human decisions to build coal-fired electricity generating plants will impact the local region where the plant is built (environmentally, socially, and economically), will require coal to be mined and transported in other regions (environmental, social, and economic implications), and will impact lakes, forests, and grasslands by producing airborne and water-borne pollution, and CO2 emissions which affect long term climatic conditions locally and globally.   The choice to produce electricity by burning coal also has implications on the development (or NON-development) of other energy possibilities such as hydro-power, wind-power, etc.

The physical landscape influences human behaviour:

  • Human settlement patterns are directly related to physical realities such as the location of mountains, rivers, and lakes, and global patterns of weather and climate.  You don’t see major cities located in the high Arctic, in major mountain ranges, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, or in the middle of hot deserts!
  • Weather and climate affect human settlements and activities.  For example, hurricanes and tornadoes can dramatically effect people and their built environment.

Today geographers consider (among other things):

  • nature of the physical environment and human interactions with it
  • patterns, causes and possibilities of human settlement, economic, social and political activity

It is important to note that those who study the earth and atmospheric sciences do so recognizing that their field of study is intimately interconnected with other areas of research, including social sciences like sociology, economics, anthropology, political science, and human geography.

In most major universities, geography departments offer degree programs in either the arts or sciences:

  • you can do a B.A. in geography (emphasizing the human side – cultural studies, economic location, urban planning, etc.).  This is usually called “human geography.” It is often subdivided into urban geography, cultural geography, historical geography, and economic geography.  These graduates often go into urban planning, architecture, economic development (especially in the Third World), education, community services, social services, missions, and other people-related careers.
  • Or, you can do a B.Sc. in geography (emphasizing the natural science side – geomorphology, meteorology, climatology, biogeography, etc.).   This is either called “physical geography” or “earth and atmospheric sciences.” Most universities offer “environmental studies” majors which combine several aspects of physical geography.  These graduates often work in environmental services, parks, government and private industry, education, and overseas in  development and missions.

In either case, the interconnectedness between all of the disciplines is recognized.  Human geographers do consider the influence of natural processes.  And physical geographers account for human influences upon natural processes.

C.  Why bother ?

Are these courses relevant?  Why bother study these processes at all?

To try to communicate some of my enthusiasm and passion for geography (as a pastor!) I want to suggest that these courses are critical components of your educational experience for several reasons:

  1. It’s practical!   We live in the real world of rocks, hills, seasons, thunderstorms, cities, highways, and countries which physical geography studies!  You experience this “stuff” as you walk in the woods or feel the westerly wind!  You will find that you look at your everyday world differently because of this course.

As you take these courses you will discover why your local topography (the shape of the land – hills, rivers, lakes, etc.) is the way it is!  And you will understand the processes that continue to shape it.  You will know where to drill a well and drill for oil.  You will know where it is safer to dump your garbage and build drainage field (and where it is definitely not safe to do so!).  You can make smarter real estate choices!  Hey … as a parent, I’m even able to help my kids figure out how best to dam a stream!

You will begin to understand the natural processes that determine your climate.  And you will begin to explore the debate on climatic change (global warming, the greenhouse effect) and how that will affect your life.  Are you from a farm background?  What are the global climatic trends going to mean for you?

You will begin to understand weather patterns that influence your region – you will know the tell-tale signs of thunderstorms and tornadoes … and the signs of a peaceful summer day!  You will know what to wear in the morning!  It may save you a soaking next summer when you’re out fishing on the lake!  Planning an outdoor wedding? – physical geography can help!

You will discover practical ways to be a more environmentally conscientious person!

  1. You will learn things!  You will know why the sky is blue!  You will know why mountain lakes are turquoise!  You will know why Greenland is not really green and heating costs in Iceland (and Medicine Hat, Alberta) are among the lowest in the world!
  1. You will be able to make wise choices. 

You will know the best part of town to buy real estate (yes, it’s true!)

You will begin to appreciate how decisions you make – about everything from what you buy to how you spend your spare time – can impact your environment for good, or for bad.

  1. The Greeks were right!  Study of the earth/atmosphere are the fundamental sciences upon which all others – biology, chemistry, physics, etc. – are built.  If you do go on to study other sciences, you will have an excellent foundation! If you end up in missions anywhere in the developing world, earth and atmospheric sciences issues (for instance:  soil erosion, clean drinking water, proper sanitation, soil fertility, and severe weather prediction), are among the most critical needs.  This course will give you a great beginning to be able to give some practical help and knowledge to people most in need in developing countries.
  1. You will grow spiritually!  In Scripture, God is Creator of the earth, atmosphere, and the entire physical universe.  As we study about the earth and atmosphere, we are studying about God!  The study of God is theology (Greek, “theos” = God).  This course is really a study in theology because we are studying what God has made!  Rather a different way of looking at it, eh?  (Try to remember that as you’re studying for the mid-term!)
  • Johannes Kepler (1571-1630), an astronomer, studied planetary motion, optics, and mathematics (we have him to thank for calculus!); he wrote that his pursuit of the natural sciences was “thinking God’s thoughts after Him.”  Kepler was a faithful Christian, who saw his scientific research as a spiritual journey to better understand the Creator through His creation.  In this course, as we study God’s creation, we are also exploring “God’s thoughts;” understanding something of the mind of the Creator by beginning to understand His amazing creation!
  • Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727) – physicist, mathematician, and astronomer – wrote, “This most beautiful system of the sun, planets, and comets could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful Being.  And if the fixed stars are the centres of other like systems, these, being formed by the like wise counsel, must be all subject to the dominion of One …  This Being governs all things, not as the soul of the world, but as Lord over all.”  (Newton, commenting on the amazing complexity and intricacy of creation, is also reported to have said:  “In the absence of any other proof, the thumb alone would convince me of God’s existence.”)
  • Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778), the botanist who created the “scientific names” (Linnaean taxonomy) for species (e.g. the American Robin is turdus migratorius … yes, it really is!), believed that God created in orderly fashion and part of our role as humans is to discover that order.  Then we can make wise choices.
  • Many leading contemporary scientists see their scientific research as an expression of their faith in God.  You can check out some of these at Test of FAITH.

We can certainly learn the most about God through the book of God’s Word, the Bible.  But we can also learn much about God by studying the book of  God’s works, His creation.  Through the study and care of His creation we can develop a closer relationship with God Himself.

As you study this course, TRY to keep in mind that the mountains, rivers, glaciers, and other landforms we study — that the processes of weathering, erosion, etc — are all created by God!  As we study them, we study God’s handiwork!  We are walking through His art gallery!  And we are learning about the amazing processes by which God sustains and continues to actively shape His world.  We are studying God’s world!

That’s why I, as a pastor and a scientist, I am passionate about geography.  My faith in God and my enjoyment of the natural world that God created go hand-in-hand.  As I learn more about the wonder of God’s world, my wonder at the glory of God grows!   I worship God better as I develop a deeper appreciation of His incredible work in creation.


A.  Introducing “Systems”

The Prairie landscape around Caronport (or the landscape wherever you are living) is a natural “system” that has developed over an extended period of time, and which has been dramatically changed by human activity (logging, roads, the university!).  It represents, in a sense, a microcosm, of many of the processes that we will be studying in the course.  If you have a chance, grab some friends and explore some of the natural environment around the College!

Nowhere on earth is the physical landscape static (i.e. unchanging).  The Earth’s surface is continually being shaped and reformed.  Occasionally this is illustrated dramatically.  For example in one day, November 14, 1963, the entire island of Surtsey, 1.5 km long and 220 m high, was “born” 30 km off Iceland as a result of an offshore volcanic eruption.  Much more recently, in August 2016 an earthquake struck central Italy, killing at least 300, injuring 400, and leaving more than 2500 homeless.

Most often, however, the landscape changes slowly.  Forces which shape it are either

  • constructive – they push move or raise the earth’s surface upward (volcanic activity, compression forces that force up mountain ranges slowly, over time).
  • destructive – they scour, wear down or erode the earth’s surface (weathering and erosion).

Geographers have changed their approach to areas like the Prairies in recent decades.  At one time scientists would measure the streams and coulees, describe their present shape,  record the types of vegetation, chart weather patterns, etc.  Their approach was largely descriptive (they simply described what was there).  They did not think about how the creeks and coulees might have looked in the past.  Nor did they consider how the landscape might change in the future!

What was the problem with a purely descriptive approach?  Using this approach, the first designers of the city structure located some buildings on very dangerous sites!  They built close to (in some cases rapidly) eroding cliffs.

These days geographers also want to know why and how the present features developed.  They want to understand how the various processes that shape and change a valley like this one work.  They try to understand how the various natural systems interact.  This allows us to understand the interactions between components of the landscape – for instance a Prairie coulee (river valley).   If we were to introduce changes (for instance, if we were to reroute one of the tributaries of the river, we could predict the consequences of that action on the stream, the vegetation, the wildlife, the groundwater flow, etc., etc.).  We can also make wiser locational choices … saving lots of grief in the future!

This is called a systems approach.

A system is: “any ordered, interrelated set of things and their attributes, linked by flows of energy and matter, as distinct from the surrounding environment outside the system.”

More simply, a system is:   “a set of objects and the relationships between them.”

A systems approach allows and encourages us to explore the interactions between components of the natural environment.

B. Types of Systems

Systems can be described as open or closed depending on whether or not they are influence by outside forces … and whether or not they influence outside areas!

  1.  An open system is a system in which inputs and outputs flow freely across its boundaries.  It is open to energy and matter from outside the local area.  Most natural systems are open systems.  See Figure 1.6 and 1.7 pp 11-12, 4CE (1.4 and 1.5 pp. 10-11, 3CE).  Along the streams, rainfall and snow come in and river water flows out.  Rabbits hop in, birds fly out.  Sunlight comes in, long-wave radiation flows out.  The river is an open system.  This is helpful to remember.  Any changes that occur in the river will affect other locations.  For instance, allowing an industry to dump sewage into the river will affect things downstream!  Changes further upstream will affect the water quality here.

The earth, as a whole, is an open system in terms of energy.  Solar energy comes in from the sun; long-wave radiation goes out, radiated by the Earth (we discuss this more in GEOG 101).

  1. A closed system is one that is completely self-contained.  Nothing comes in or flows out.  No energy or matter come in from outside the local area.

In reality only the entire Earth/atmosphere system, in terms of matter (not energy) can be considered a true closed system.  Not much “stuff” enters the Earth/atmosphere from outside, or leaves from the Earth.  True, small amounts of extraterrestrial matter (asteroids, etc.) do enter the Earth/atmosphere system, and small amounts of terrestrial matter do escape (including human “stuff” – satellites, probes, and junk).  But for all practical purposes the Earth/atmosphere system is considered a closed system with regard to matter.

All natural systems we interact with in real life – the Prairie, your Uncle Joe’s farm, your favourite vacation spot, your backyard – are open systems.  They are dependent on external sources of energy and matter … what happens elsewhere affects them!  They also provide inputs/outputs for other locations … what you do affects other places.  For instance, if your neighbour cuts down his huge maple trees – what happens – your yard gets more sunlight … different things can grow or not grow.  If you let the dandelions in your lawn go to seed – what happens – your neighbours get dandelions!

The natural systems we will discuss in this course are all open systems.

C. Change in Systems (See 4CE Figure 1.9, p.14; 3CE Figure 1.6, p. 12 – System Equilibrium …)

Some systems are fairly stable – they change little over time.  Others experience much change over time.  The amount and nature of change in systems is referred to as equilibrium.  Systems can be in steady state equilibrium, metastable equilibrium, or dynamic equilibrium.  A closely related term is feedback.

  1. Some systems are in steady state equilibrium. In the long term they change very little. In a large Prairie like that around Caronport, examples of these would include the nature of the vegetation and the average climate.  These may vary a little each year, but, in the long term, they have been relatively stable.

For example, if you were here ten years ago, the vegetation was much the same. The climate has changed little (though it is changing more rapidly now) over the past several hundred years.

  1. Some systems are in metastable equilibrium.  In this case, an event has occurred which has dramatically changed a system, but then the system has stabilized at a new level.  The system goes from level of steady-state equilibrium to another level of steady-state equilibrium.
    • Your text has the example of a cliff failure in southern England.
    • An example in these Prairie would be the reinforcing of the banks of streams with rocks and concrete blocks to prevent erosion.  The normal process of river development was altered; the streams have established a new “normal” existence, different than before.
  1. Some systems continually change over time as a distinctive trend – dynamic equilibrium This refers to a situation where there is constant, ongoing change.  The system never stays the same.
    • For example, the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere (atmospheric CO2) is constantly and consistently increasing.  This is one of the culprits implicated in global warming.  This has consequences for ecosystems like Arctic sea ice.  As temperatures warm, sea ice decreases.  As the ice decreases (which is highly reflective of solar radiation), temperatures increase further, resulting in further melting, further temperature increases, etc., etc.
  1. These states of equilibrium highlight the importance of feedback mechanisms Feedback refers to the fact that when one component of a natural system is changed, other components often change in response.  Components of systems are interrelated.  Feedback refers to the response various components make to change. We are familiar with feedback … when you write an exam your instructor marks it – feedback – that feedback may change your study habits (or not!).

a.  Positive feedback refers to a situation in which a change in a system amplifies or increases something else.  For instance, increased rainfall may result in increased plant growth.

      • For instance, Canada averages 8000 forest fires per year!  As the fires burn, they dry out more and more vegetation, providing more and more fuel, allowing for a bigger and bigger fires … positive feedback!.
      • When your mid term grade results in an increase in the amount you study for the final — positive feedback!
      • Positive feedback often results in dynamic equilibrium.  When a change happens (increased rainfall, drying vegetation), more and more change happens.

b. Negative feedback refers to a situation in which a change in a system reduces or decreases something else.  For instance decreased rainfall can lead to decreased plant growth.

Firefighters try a variety of approaches to produce negative feedback, to reduce the fires:

        • fire retardant and water
        • fire breaks (bulldoze a line, to remove fuel and hopefully stop the advance)
        • light backfires (in a controlled way, burn the land ahead of the main fire, to remove fuel)

If, when you get your exam back you are so discouraged you decide to give up (PLEASE, don’t!!!), that would be negative feedback!

Negative feedback tends to stabilize a system.  It tends to prevent more change from occurring.  Negative feedback pushes systems toward steady state equilibrium or stable plateaus in metastable equilibrium.


Models are simplified, idealized representations of real-world systems. Scientists often try to illustrate systems using models – diagramatic representations of reality.

  • Maps, for instance, are models (diagramatic representations) of the earth’s surface.
  • Flow charts are another modelling strategy by diagramming natural systems.

Models allow us to understand how feedback/equilibrium may affect systems.  Models also allow us to try to hypothesize how changes in one aspect of a system may impact other aspects.

Models are used extensively in environmental impact studies. Scientists, engineers, and planners try to take into account all the factors that might be influenced by a change (e.g. a new residential development).  They will try to assess the impact of the change on everything from local water resources, to wildlife, to neighbors’ quality of life.  These models allow for better informed policy and decision making.

The amazing thing about God’s creation is that He has established well-defined natural systems that can be fairly accurately modeled.  The natural world is not randomly thrown together, but reveals deep evidence of a design and an extremely intelligent creator!  This is good news for us, as we seek to make choices.  It is also a wonderful affirmation of our faith in a great creator God.


(4CE Pages 16-17 “Exploring Earth Systems” ; 3CE Figure 1.10, p. 15)

Systems become very complicated very quickly!  For instance, natural scientists often speak of the earth as having four “spheres.” Complications arise because these spheres are so inter-connected!

  1. Atmosphere — the thin, gaseous veil surrounding the earth
  2. Lithosphere –the earth’s crust and the upper part of the mantle
  3. Hydrosphere — the earth’s water exists as a gas in the atmosphere and as liquid/gas/solid on and in the Lithosphere
  4. Biosphere – this is the part of the lithosphere/atmosphere/hydrosphere that are capable of supporting life.

The biosphere overlaps the other three!  The hydrosphere overlaps with the other three!  The atmosphere affects the lithosphere (weather).  The lithosphere effects the atmosphere (e.g. volcanic eruptions).

One of the problems natural scientists have is that the world is so complicated and interrelated.  In this course we’ll try to sort them all out!  But isn’t God amazing!

Worth reflecting on …

Philip Yancey writes, “God makes most plain how he feels about creation in his longest single speech, and magnificent address found at the end of Job.  Look closely and you will notice a common thread in the specimens he holds up for Job’s edification

  • a lioness hunting her prey.
  • A mountain goat giving birth in the wilds.
  • A rogue and donkey roaming the salt flats.
  • An ostrich flapping her useless wings with joy.
  • A stallion leaping high to paw the air.
  • A hawk, an eagle, and a raven building their nests on rocky cranks.

“That’s a mere warmup in Job’s education.  From there God advances to the behemoth, a hippo-like creature no one can tame, and the mighty dragonish leviathan.  “Can you make a pet at him like a bird or put him on a leash for your girls?”  God asks with a touch of sarcasm.  “The mere sight of him is overpowering.  No one is fierce enough to rouse him.  Who then is able to stand against me?”

“Wildness is God’s underlying message to Job, the one trait his creation all shares.  God is celebrating his created world which will never be domesticated by human beings.  Evidently, wildness serves an essential function in the world is God sees it.  It brings us down a notch, reminding us of something we prefer to forget: our creatureliness.  And it also announces to our senses the splendor of an invisible, untamable God.  The heavens declare the glory of God; and so do breaching whales and pronking springbok.” 

(Philip Yancey, I Was Just Wondering [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989], pp.10-12)

John Polkinghorne, former Cambridge University Professor of Mathematical Physics, and President of Queen’s College, Cambridge, writes:

“The world in which we actually live is multilayered in the richness of its reality.  One of the attractions of the Christian account is that, in seeing the will and nature of the Creator underlying and unifying the varieties of human experience, it makes this richness more intelligible.  Our scientific explorations are insights into the rational order with which God has endowed his universe.  Our experiences of beauty are a sharing in his joy in creation.  Our moral perceptions are intuitions of his good and perfect will.  Our religious experiences are encounters with his hidden presence.  Such a view is whole and satisfying.”

Polkinghorne, John.  1994.  Quarks, Chaos and Christianity.  New York:  Crossroad.  P. 61.

Do you agree?  Feel free to discuss these quotes on the course discussion site.

This page is the intellectual property of the author, Bruce Martin, and is copyrighted © 2019 by Bruce Martin.  This page may be copied or printed only for educational purposes by students registered in courses taught by Dr. Bruce Martin.  Any other use constitutes a criminal offence.

Scripture quotations marked (NLT) are taken from the Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Wheaton, Illinois 60189. All rights reserved.