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Geography is derived from the Greek word geo, meaning “earth, ground, or land” and graph, meaning “to write.” Geography is writing about the earth. Greek mathematician Eratosthenes (276–194 BCE) was the first to coin the term and establish the study of geography. Geography is the study of the physical characteristics of and the arrangement of places on Earth. As a science, geography has many fields and subfields but the main branches of geography are physical geography and human geography. Cartography, or mapping and map making, is also a scientific discipline within geography. It is the creation of maps through mapping a physical location to show and analyze the relationship of a location and human population.
Classical geography as it was practiced from the ancient Greek period through the nineteenth century was primarily physical geography. Physical geography encompasses the study of the land, oceans, seasons, climate, atmosphere, and Earth’s soil. It looks at how these elements change and have changed over time, the spatial relationships they have with shaping current environments. Subfields of physical geography are as vast as the Earth and include meteorology (the study of weather), glaciology (the study of glaciers), hydrology (the study of water and the water cycle), climatology (the study of Earth’s climate), biogeography (the study of biodiversity and the effects the environment has on biodiversity), oceanography (the study of the oceans), geomorphology (the study of landforms), pedology (the study of soils), coastal geography (where land and water meet), paleogeography (the study of past geography to see how continents have changed over time), quaternary science (the study of the past to see how climate has affected Earth’s geography), and astronomical geography (the study of how the moon and sun affect the Earth).
It was the expansion of colonial powers into Asia, Africa, Australia, and North and South America and the need for natural resources to fuel the Industrial Revolution that established geography as an academic discipline in universities. The Royal Geographic Society was established in Great Britain in 1830. The National Geographic Society in the United States was founded in 1888. That need has never dissipated. With it and the vastness of Earth and its everchanging geography has made physical geography a science of infinite inquiry.
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