Physical Perspective

When we describe places, we can discuss their absolute and relative location and their relationship and interaction with other places. As regional geographers, we can dig deeper and explore both the physical and human characteristics that make a particular place unique. Geographers explore a wide variety of spatial phenomena, but the discipline can roughly be divided into two branches: physical geography and human geography. Physical geography focuses on natural features and processes, such as landforms, climate, and water features. Human geography is concerned with human activity, such as culture, language, and religion. However, these branches are not exclusive. You might be a physical geographer who studies hurricanes, but your research includes the human impact from these events. You might be a human geographer who studies food, but your investigations include the ecological impact of agricultural systems. Regional geography takes this holistic approach, exploring both the physical and human characteristics of the world’s regions.

Much of Earth’s physical landscape, from mountains to volcanoes to earthquakes to valleys, has resulted from the movement of tectonic plates. As the theory of plate tectonics describes, these rigid plates are situated on top of a bed of molten, flowing material, much like a cork floating in a pot of boiling water. There are seven major tectonic plates and numerous minor plates.

Where two tectonic plates meet is known as a plate boundary, and boundaries can interact in three different ways. Where two plates slide past one another is called a transform boundary. The San Andreas Fault in California is an example of a transform boundary. A divergent plate boundary is where two plates slide apart from one another. Africa’s Rift Valley was formed by this type of plate movement. Convergent plate boundaries occur when two plates slide towards one another. In this case, where two plates have roughly the same density, upward movement can occur, creating mountains. The Himalaya Mountains, for example, were formed from the Indian plate converging with the Eurasian plate. In other cases, subduction occurs and one plate slides below the other. Here, deep, under-ocean trenches can form. The 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami occurred because of a subducting plate boundary off the west coast of Sumatra, Indonesia.

The interaction between tectonic plates and historical patterns of erosion and deposition have generated a variety of landforms across Earth’s surface. Each of the world’s regions has identifiable physical features, such as plains, valleys, mountains, and major water bodies. Topography refers to the study of the shape and features of the surface of the Earth. Areas of high relief have significant changes in elevation on the landscape, such as steep mountains, while areas of low relief are relatively flat.

Another key feature of Earth’s physical landscape is climate. Weather refers to the short-term state of the atmosphere. We might refer to the weather as partly sunny or stormy, for example. Climate, on the other hand, refers to long-term weather patterns and is affected by a place’s latitude, terrain, altitude, and nearby water bodies. Geographers commonly use the Köppen climate classification system to refer to the major climate zones found in the world.

Each climate zone in the Köppen climate classification system is assigned a lettered code, referring to the temperature and precipitation patterns found in the particular region. Climate varies widely across Earth. Cherrapunji, India, located in the CWB climate zone, receives over 11,000 mm (400 in) of rain each year. In contrast, the Atacama Desert (BWk), situated along the western coast of South America across Chile, Peru, Bolivia, and Argentina, typically receives only around 1 to 3 mm (0.04 to 0.12 in) of rain each year.

Earth’s climate has gone through significant changes historically, alternating between long periods of warming and cooling. Since the industrial revolution in the 1800s, however, global climate has experienced a warming phase. 95 percent of scientists agree that this global climate change has resulted primarily from human activities, particularly the emission of greenhouse gasses like carbon dioxide. Fifteen of the last sixteen warmest years ever recorded have occurred since 2000. Overall, this warming has contributed to rising sea levels as the polar ice caps melt, changing precipitation patterns, and the expansion of deserts. The responses to global climate change, and the impacts from it vary by region.

Human Perspective

The physical setting of the world’s places has undoubtedly influenced the human setting; just as human activities have shaped the physical landscape. There are currently around 7.4 billion people in the world, but these billions of people are not uniformly distributed. When we consider where people live in the world, we tend to cluster in areas that are warm and are near water and avoid places that are cold and dry. There are three major population clusters in the world: East Asia, South Asia, and Europe.

Just as geographers can discuss “where” people are located, we can explore “why” population growth is occurring in particular areas. All of the 10 most populous cities in the world are located in countries traditionally categorized as “developing.” These countries typically have high rates of population growth. A population grows, quite simply, when more people are born than die. The birth rate refers to the total number of live births per 1,000 people in a given year. In 2012, the average global birth rate was 19.15 births per 1,000 people.

Subtracting the death rate from the birth rate results in a country’s rate of natural increase (RNI). For example, Madagascar has a birth rate of 37.89 per 1,000 and a death rate of 7.97 per 1,000. 37.89 minus 7.97 is 29.92 per 1,000. If you divide the result by 10, you’d get 2.992 per 100 or 2.992 percent. In essence, this means that Madagascar’s population is increasing at a rate of 2.992 percent per year. The natural increase rate does not include immigration. Some countries in Europe, in fact, have a negative natural increase rate, but their population continues to increase due to immigration.

The birth rate is directly affected by the total fertility rate (TFR), which is the average number of children born to a woman during her childbearing years. In developing countries, the total fertility rate is often 4 or more children, contributing to high population growth. In developed countries, on the other hand, the total fertility rate may be only 1 or 2 children, which can ultimately lead to population decline.

A number of factors influence the total fertility rate, but it is generally connected to a country’s overall level of development. As a country develops and industrializes, it generally becomes more urbanized. Children are no longer needed to assist with family farms, and urban areas might not have large enough homes for big families.

Women increasingly enter the workforce, which can delay childbearing and further restrict the number of children a family desires. Culturally, a shift occurs when industrialized societies no longer value large family sizes. As women’s education increases, women are able to take control of their reproductive rights. Contraceptive use becomes more widespread and socially acceptable.

This shift in population characteristics as a country industrialized can be represented by the demographic transition model (DTM). This model demonstrates the changes in birth rates, death rates, and population growth over time as a country develops. In stage one, during feudal Europe, for example, birth rates and death rates were very high. Populations were vulnerable to drought and disease, and thus population growth was minimal. No country remains in stage one today. In stage two, a decline in death rates leads to a rise in population. This decline in death rates occurred as a result of agricultural productivity and improvements in public health. Vaccines, for example, greatly reduced the mortality from childhood diseases.

Stage two countries are primarily agricultural, and thus there is a cultural and historical preference for large families, so birth rates remain high. Most of Sub- Saharan Africa is in stage two. In stage three, urbanization and increasing access to contraceptives leads to a decline in the birth rate. As country industrializes, women enter the workforce and seek higher education. The population growth begins to slow. Much of Middle and South America, as well as India, are in stage three.

In stage four, birth rates approach the death rates. Women have increased independence as well as educational and work opportunities, and families may choose to have a small number of children or none at all. Most of Europe, as well as China, are in stage four. Some have proposed a stage five of the demographic transition model. In some countries, the birth rate has fallen below the death rate as families choose to have only 1 child. In these cases, a population will decline unless there is significant immigration. Japan, for example, is in stage five and has a total fertility rate of 1.41. Although this is only a model, and each country passes through the stages of demographic transition at different rates, the generalized model of demographic transition holds true for most countries of the world.

As countries industrialize and become more developed, they shift from primarily rural settlements to urban ones. Urbanization refers to the increased proportion of people living in urban areas. As people migrate out of rural, agricultural areas, the proportion of people living in cities increases. As people living in cities have children, this further increases urbanization. For most of human history, we have been predominantly rural. By the middle of 2009, however, the number of people living in urban areas surpassed the number of people living in rural areas for the first time. In 2014, 54 percent of the world’s population lived in urban areas. This is expected to increase to 66 percent by 2050.

The number of megacities, cities with 10 million people or more, has also increased. In 1990, there were 10 megacities in the world. In 2014, there were 28 megacities. Tokyo- Yokohama is the largest metropolitan area in the world with over 38 million inhabitants.

Regional Thinking

The world can be divided into regions based on human and/or physical characteristics. Regions simply refer to spatial areas that share a common feature. There are three types of regions: formal, functional, and perceptual. Formal regions, some- times called homogenous regions, have at least one characteristic in common. A map of religions in Europe, for example, groups countries based on the dominant religion, creating formal regions. This isn’t to say that everyone in Spain is Roman Catholic, but rather that most people in Spain are Roman Catholic. Other for- mal regions might include political affiliation, climate, agricultural zones, or ethnicity. Formal regions might also be established by governmental organizations, such as the case with state or provincial boundaries.

Functional regions, unlike formal regions, are not homogenous in the sense that they do not share a single cultural or physical characteristic. Rather, functional regions are united by a particular function, often economic. Functional regions are some- times called nodal regions and have a nodal arrangement, with a core and surrounding nodes. A metropolitan area, for example, often includes a central city and its surrounding suburbs. We tend to think of the area as a “region” not because everyone is the same religion or ethnicity, or has the same political affiliation, but because it functions as a region. Los Angeles, for example, is the second-most populous city in the United States. However, the region of Los Angeles extends far beyond its official city limits. In fact, over 471,000 workers commute into Los Angeles County from the surrounding region every day. Los Angeles, as with all metropolitan areas, functions economically as a single region and is thus considered a functional region. Other examples of functional regions include church parishes, radio station listening areas, and newspaper subscription areas.

Perceptual regions are not as well-defined as formal or functional regions and are based on people’s perceptions. The southeastern region of the United States is often referred to as “the South,” but where the exact boundary of this region depends on individual perception. Some people might include all of the states that formed the Confederacy during the Civil War. Others might exclude Missouri or Oklahoma. Perceptual regions exist at a variety of scales. In your hometown, there might be a perceptual region called “the west side.” Internationally, regions like the Midlands in Britain or the Swiss Alps are considered perceptual. Similarly, “the Middle East” is a perceptual region. It is perceived to exist as a result of religious and ethnic characteristics, but people wouldn’t necessarily agree on which countries to include. Perceptual regions are real in the sense that our perceptions are real, but their boundaries are not uniformly agreed upon.

As geographers, we can divide the world into a number of different regions based on formal criteria and functional interaction. However, there is a matter of perception, as well. We might divide the world based on landmasses since landmasses often share physical and cultural characteristics. Sometimes water connects people more than land, though. In the case of Europe, for example, the Mediterranean Sea historically provided economic and cultural links to the surrounding countries though we consider them to be three separate continents. Creating regions can often be a question of “lumpers and splitters;” who do you lump together and who do you split apart? Do you have fewer regions united by only a couple characteristics or more regions that share a great deal in common?

Most geographers take a balanced approach to “lumping and splitting,” identifying nine distinct world regions. These regions are largely perceptual, however. Where does “Middle” America end and “South” America begin? Why is Pakistan, a predominantly Muslim country, characterized as “South” Asia and not “Southwest” Asia? Why is Russia its own region? You might divide the world into entirely different regions.

While it might seem like there are clear boundaries between the world’s regions, in actuality, where two regions meet are zones of gradual transition. These transition zones are marked by gradual spatial change. Moscow, Russia, for example, is quite similar to other areas of Eastern Europe, though they are considered two different regions on  the map. Likewise, were it not for the Rio Grande and a large boundary fence dividing the cities of El Paso, Texas and Ciudad Juarez, Mexico; you might not realize that this metropolitan area stretches across two countries and world regions. Even within regions, country boundaries often mark spaces of gradual transition rather than a stark delineation between two completely different spaces. The boundary between Peru and Ecuador, for example, is quite relaxed as international boundaries go and residents of the countries can move freely across the boundary to the towns on either side.


When we start to explore the spatial distribution of economic development, we find that there are stark differences between and within world regions. Some countries have a very high standard of living and high average incomes, while others have few resources and high levels of poverty. Politically, some countries have stable, open governments, while others have long-standing authoritarian regimes. Thus, world regional geography is, in many ways, a study of global inequality. But the geographic study of inequality is more than just asking where inequalities are present; it is also digging deeper and asking why those inequalities exist. How can we measure inequality? Generally, inequality refers to uneven distributions of wealth, which can actually be challenging to measure. By some accounts, the wealthiest one percent of people in the world have as much wealth as the bottom 99 percent. Wealth inequality is just one facet of global studies of inequality, however. There are also differences in income: around half of the world survives on less than $2 per day, and around one-fifth have less than $1 per day. There are also global differences in literacy, life expectancy, and health care. There are differences in the rights and economic opportunities for women compared to men. There are differences in the way resources are distributed and conserved.

Furthermore, these differences don’t exist in a bubble. The world is increasingly interconnected, a process known as globalization. This increased global integration is economical but also cultural. An economic downturn in one country can affect its trading partners half a world away. A Hollywood movie might be translated into dozens of different languages and distributed worldwide. Today, it is quite easy for a business woman in the United States to video chat with her factory manager in a less developed country. For many, the relative size of the world is shrinking as a result of advances in transportation and communications technology.

For others in the poorest, most debt-ridden countries, the world is not flat. As global poverty rates have decreased over the past few decades, the number of people living in poverty within Sub-Saharan Africa has increased. In addition, while global economic integration has increased, most monetary transactions still occur within rather than between countries. The core countries can take advantage of globalization, choosing from a variety of trading partners and suppliers of raw materials, but the same cannot always be said of those in the periphery.

Globalization has often led to cultural homogenization, as “Western” culture has increasingly become the global culture. American fast food chains can now be found in a majority of the world’s countries. British and American pop music plays on radio stations around the world. The Internet, in particular, has facilitated the rapid diffusion of cultural ideas and values. But how does globalization affect local cultures? Some worry that as global culture has become more homogenized, local differences are slowly erasing. Traditional music, clothing, and food preferences might be replaced by foreign cultural features, which can lead to conflict. There is thus a tension between globalization, the benefits of global connectivity, and local culture.

It is the uniqueness of the world’s regions, the particular combination of physical landscapes and human activities that have captivated geographers from the earliest explorers to today’s researchers. And while it might simply be interesting to read about distant cultures and appreciate their uniqueness, geographers continue to dig deeper and ask why these differences exist. Geography matters. Even as we have become more culturally homogeneous and economically interconnected, there remain global differences in the geography of countries, and these differences can have profound effects. Geographic study helps us understand the relationship between the world’s communities, explain global differences and inequalities, and better address future challenges.


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Introduction to Human Geography Copyright © 2019 by R. Adam Dastrup, MA, GISP is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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