Tag Archives: Physical Geography

Human and Physical interactions

The recent floods in the UK have captured the imagination of the media and general population.  The relationship between flood events and the human population have undeniably been highlighted by the UK media in the last week, with BBC articles such as Why do people buy houses in places prone to flooding? clearly outlining the interactions between humans and the natural environment.

This article clearly outlines the ways in which humans relate to rivers before and during flood events. Much research has been conducted into the effects of flooding with the effects of flood events being felt and seen for many months afterwards. The BBC article,  raise the point that whilst damp or a bit of subsidence may deter prospective home-buyers, living on a floodplain does not, the article then goes onto explore the reasons why.

Considering the physical processes at play during a flood has been considered in many contexts by Geographers. Tadaki et al.’s (2012) recent paper ‘Nature, culture, and the work of physical geography’ in Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers discusses the implications of a cultural turn in physical geography. This paper makes thought-provoking points and concludes by stating ‘(it is about) realising all physical geography is applied and that all physical geography is relevant. It is the questions of ‘applied to what?’ and ‘relevant to whom?’ which need to be considered more carefully’ (Tadaki et al., 2012: 560)

It was intriguing to read this paper alongside the daily news articles which were being released. Tadaki et al. raise important questions about the cultural considerations and implications of research which involve the physical environment. Recent flood events prove the significance of research but also lead to enquiries as to how research is interpreted by the public and what knowledge is relevant with one resident in Barford’s article feeling that the ‘inconvenience’ of a flood every few years was worth it to live in such an attractive and convenient location.

books_iconTadaki, M., Salmon, J., Le Heron, R. and Brierley, G. (2012) Nature, culture, and the work of physical geography Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 37 (4) 547-562

worldWhy do people buy houses in places prone to flooding? BBC News 29th November 2012

Get Your Jacket On, We’re Going into the Field

By Briony Turner

Source: author

There’s nothing like getting to the raw base and passion of geography than by going out into the field.  The literal fields and forests of the beautiful British countryside offer a perfect location.

In the UK, the lesser spotted physical geographers tend to favour exposure to the elements wearing some form of rip-stop nylon, lightweight, waterproof, breathable multi-climate jacket, waders for the river fanatics and, rarer these days, sleeveless jacket with multiple pockets for vital gadgets and gismos.  Their social ecology is such that they tend to roam in groups and can often be found, when not in the pub discussing the merits of different real ales, stomping around in boots.  They can be easily distinguished from other people, particularly dog walkers, as they tend to be holding/fiddling/hovering over tools of the trade, be it the one hundred square grid quadrat or the latest near infrared camera- helium balloon-iPhone concoction.  Well, this was the perspective reached from experience of past field trips and from joining the first year undergraduates and assorted staff on a physical geography fieldtrip to Heartwood Forest in Hertfordshire earlier this week.

Once immersed outdoors in fieldwork, suddenly newspaper article angst and breakfast news headlines become highly relevant.  For what did we identify? In the midst of admiring the efforts of recent tree planting and noticing some natural regeneration we discovered ash saplings.  A week or two ago, for some of us we wouldn’t have blinked an eye, but now it is almost as if these harmless baby trees have an aura of the forbidden about them, namely Chalara Fraxinea, or dieback of ash as its more commonly known, a disease that leads to leaf loss according to DEFRA.  For those wanting to know more facts, the Forestry Commission have photos and nifty map depicting the distribution of Chalara positive sites.  As its recent spread in the UK is suspected to originate from stocks of imported young saplings from nurseries, the Government has imposed strong import restrictions.  This follows a media speculative fanfare, the most recent of which is John Vidal’s article in The Guardian, on the inadequacy of the European Plant Health Regime and the bureaucratic infrastructure that results in the UK importing ash saplings from foreign nurseries.

After a successful day out in the field with, hopefully, another generation of undergraduates inspired or at the very least aware of the importance of field work, interdisciplinary working and the usefulness of primary data collection within the more physical side of Geography, I was left to reflect on a couple of recent articles by Marc Tadaki and colleagues and Simon Dalby which have questioned, in different ways, the importance of this area of the discipline.  On re-reading them, I was struck by their common reference to a paper by David Demerit in 2009 on framing environmental research in geography.  The paper opens with commentary about the human/physical geography divide.  On reading the paper I was left wondering, why, at the very time when Geography offers the ultimate discipline of interdisciplinary thinking, are the academics set on this physical/human divide?  In this world where we are increasingly aware of the complexity of interrelating systems of environments both natural and man-made, of cause and effect,  why call for the creation of yet another sub discipline? Why call for an environmental middle ground when actually the middle ground, the interdisciplinary thinking, is the very heart of Geography?

So I implore all those academics reinforcing the divide with theoretical musings to come down from the ivory tower and get out into the field with your colleagues and students.  Geography has so much to offer as a discipline, so let’s focus efforts on building bridges rather than trenches.

Ash dieback: Forestry companies blame ‘chaotic’ import system The Guardian, 1 November 2012

David Demeritt, 2009, From externality to inputs and interference: framing environmental research in geography, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 34 3–11

Government bans imports of ash trees DEFRA, 29 October 2012

Marc Tadaki, Jennifer Salmond, Richard Le Heron and Gary Brierley, 2012, Nature, culture, and the work of physical geography, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 37 547-562

Simon Dalby, 2012, Geo 2.0: digital tools, geographical vision and a changing planet The Geographical Journal 178 270–274

Content Alert: Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, Volume 37, Issue 4 (October 2012) is Available Online Now

Cover image for Vol. 37 Issue 4

Volume 37, Issue 4 Pages 477– 657, October 2012

The latest issue of Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers is available on Wiley Online Library.

Click past the break for a full list of articles in this issue.

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A View from Above: Geography explores the outdoors

by Fiona Ferbrache

The scientific method has close connections to ideas about progress and innovation.  In 2010, a question was posed in the Guardian: “Can a human break the sound barrier?” This question may well be answered later this year when skydiver, Felix Baumgartner, will free fall to earth from the edge of space.  Taking a balloon to roughly 37km above the earth’ surface, the skydiver is expected to be the first human to break the sound barrier during his ten minute return flight.  Baumgartner’s adventure will be facilitated by a range of technical apparatus including oxygen tanks and a special suit designed to withstand temperatures of -94ºF.

The theme of adventure and exploration in this sky diving story connects with Area’s special quarterly section Exploring the Outdoors.  Celebrating the multiple ways in which geographers engage with outdoor spaces, the papers in this collection address activities such as climbing, mountaineering, mountain rescue and fieldtrips.  Each paper contributes to our knowledge of the outdoors, but the strength of this collection emerges in the co-construction of the multiple relations that link science and adventure, from both human and physical sides of geography. As Couper and Yarwood (2012) emphasise in the introduction to this collection, ‘outdoors’ provides a conceptual field from which to transgress this geographical boundary.

Providing an overview of this collection, Couper and Yarwood also acknowledge its limitations. They note, among other things, that “it remains predominantly land-based in its consideration of outdoor-spaces” (p.5).  With this in mind, Baumgartner’s upcoming adventure may offer some alternative approaches for geographic engagement with the outdoors.

  Skydiving from the edge of space: can a human break the sound barrier?, The Guardian

  Sky diver to break sound barrier with jump from edge of space, The Telegraph

  Pauline Couper & Richard Yarwood, 2012, Confluences of human and physical geography research on the outdoors: an introduction to the special section on ‘Exploring the outdoors’, Area 44 2-6

Area Content Alert: Volume 44, Issue 1 (March 2012)

The latest issue of Area is available on Wiley Online Library.

Click past the break to view the full table of contents.

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Border Abstractions: Competing Notions of Sovereignty

The Himalayas: a traditional physical boundary. New geographies have complicated political and cultural borders. Wikimedia Commons.

Benjamin Sacks

THE AMERICAN raid on Abbottabad that killed Osama bin Laden on Sunday, 1 May raised Islamabad’s concerns that its borders could be so easily breached by a foreign power. Washington cited Pakistan’s inability to control traffic through its borders as a factor behind the US decision not to inform the Pakistani military or the Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) prior to the operation’s execution. Beyond the immediate coldness in Pakistani-American relations, however, is the broader relevance and role of boundaries in international affairs.

Physical geography defined the earliest boundaries. The first empires—including those of South Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa—followed the course of rivers and hugged the sands of oceans. As civilisation moved into less-hospitable territory, Earth’s extremities became natural dividers. In the Americas, the wax and wane of the occidental mountain ranges determined the edges of the Mesoamerican civilisations. In Africa, the Sahara drew a nearly impassable barrier across the belly of the continent, fostering the development of multiple, distinct peoples. Perhaps most prominently, the Himalaya range sharply divided the Indian and Chinese civilisations from one another; even with tremendous cultural exchanges, the mountain peak-boundaries have changed little in the last two thousand years.

Political boundaries relied less on topographical geography. Products of nation-state organisation, many (but by no means all) political borders were formed from the machinations of seventeenth-, eighteenth- and nineteenth-century European empires. Their efforts resulted both in regions of relative geopolitical harmony (North America) and, as documented by Ieuan Griffiths in a 1986 article, vicious instability (Africa, the Indian Subcontinent). RGS explorers and scholars have long been fascinated with how these borders came to be. In 1836, Colonel Don Juan Galindo read a paper to the Royal Geographical Society of his recent Central American travels. He classified borders along strictly political lines:

Central America comprehends the five states of Costarrica [sic], Nicaragua, Honduras, Salvador, and Guatemala, united in one federation, and whose seat of government is at the city of San Salvador, within the federal district… (121).

As well as physical boundaries:

The principal points of the boundary towards Mexico are the ruins of Palenque, the river Nojbecan in latitude 19° north, and the Rio Hondo. Towards New Granada the river Escudo of Veragua, which falls into the Caribbean sea [sic], and the river Boruca, which runs to the Pacific (121).

A similarly traditional article appeared in the May 1927 edition of The Geographical Journal. W E D Allen documented the dissolution of the Tsarist Russian ‘Vice-Royalty of the Caucasus’ in favour of the new, ‘people’s republics’ that, after a very brief period of independence, were brought under Soviet control.

But physical and political boundaries only tell a small part of the story. Transnational borders, as the name suggests, are more difficult to quantify. They cover a vast spectrum of diasporas, international organisations, historical and contemporary treaties and various attributes of ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ power. In 2005, John Pickles (University of North Carolina) asked how the European Union and the collapse of formal empires have radically altered continental perceptions of borders in a Schengen Agreement world. Geographers are also returning to historical movements that transcended political boundaries. Morag Bell (Loughborough University), for instance, extensively documented the rise of ethical-environmental standards across numerous borders in the last years of the nineteenth-century.

The haziness of contemporary cultural and nation-state boundaries often allows multiple border layers to overlap and contradict one another. A now famous example occurred in 1983, when the United States invaded the small Caribbean island of Grenada. Grenadian authorities protested that the invasion violated their sovereignty. The United States responded, arguing that the island’s Communist coup had endangered the lives of Americans studying there, thus threatening US borders. London also formally protested an incursion into what it saw as its own sphere of influence; Grenada is officially a constitutional monarchy, with Queen Elizabeth II as head of state.

The current row between Washington and Islamabad is similarly complex. Pakistan’s assertion of sovereignty violation is based on traditional, geopolitical boundaries. But if we look deeper, the truth is less precise. Since partition, Islamabad has enjoyed an intimate, if complicated relationship withWashington. These long-term bilateral relations permeate throughout both cultures—from Karachi’s markets to Chicago’s Diaspora community. Strong bilateral relations thus gradually bend the country’s relative boundaries with each other as trust builds. Too, the United States’ continuing role as the ‘World’s Policeman’ (and Pakistan’s official support, or at least acquiescence of that arrangement) further reshape bilateral boundaries. It is a point reviewed in Reece Jones’s (University of Hawai’i) ‘Geopolitical Boundary Narratives, the Global War on Terror and Border Fencing in India’.

W E D Allen, “New Political Boundaries in the Caucasus“, The Geographical Journal 69.5 (May, 1927): pp. 430-41.

Morag Bell, “Reshaping Boundaries: International Ethics and Environmental Consciousness in the Early Twentieth Century“, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers New Series 23.2 (Jun, 1998): pp. 151-75.

Don Juan Galindo, “On Central America“, Journal of the Royal Geographical Society of London 6 (1836): pp. 119-35.

Ieuan Griffiths, “The Scramble for Africa: Inherited Political Boundaries“, The Geographical Journal 152.2 (Jul, 1986): pp. 204-16.

Reece Jones, “Geopolitical Boundary Narratives, the Global War on Terror and Border Fencing in India“, Transactions of the Institute for British Geographers New Series 34.3 (Jul, 2009): pp. 290-304.

John Pickles, “New Cartographies’ and the Decolonization of European Geographies“, Area 37.4 (Dec, 2005): pp. 355-64.