Geography » Archive "Physical Geography"
What Is the Observed Pattern of Sea-Surface Salinities?

What Are the Global Patterns of Temperature and Salinity?

THE OCEANS VARY IN SALINITY from place to place and with depth. Spatial variations are due to differences in the amount of evaporation and formation of ice, which increase salinity, versus the amount of precipitation, input from streams, and melting of ice, all of which add fresh water that dilutes the salinity. Also, saline waters […]

Polarity of the Water Molecule

What Causes Water to Rise or Sink?

MOVEMENT WITHIN THE OCEANS arises from other factors in addition to shearing induced by the wind. Such factors include variations in the density of water in response to changes in its temperature and salinity. Changes in temperature and salinity occur from flows of fresh water into and out of the oceans as a result of […]

Average Sea-Surface Temperatures

How Do Sea-Surface Temperatures Vary from Place to Place and Season to Season?

SEA-SURFACE TEMPERATURES (SST) VARY GREATLY, from bathwater warm to slightly below freezing. Early data on SST were collected from ships, but since the 1970s, satellites have collected voluminous SST data, documenting variations in temperature from region to region, season to season, and decade to decade. SST data have become even more important as climatologists investigate […]

What Is the Global Pattern of Surface Currents

What Is the Global Pattern of Surface Currents?

CONCEPTUAL MODELS OF REALITY, like the pole-to-pole ocean on the previous page, help us to draw general conclusions about the operation of physical processes. They also serve to highlight locations, or physical conditions under which the simplified overriding ideas prove inadequate in explaining observed phenomena. The global figure below depicts a summary of major surface […]

What Is the Anticipated Pattern of Global Surface Ocean Currents?

What Causes Ocean Currents?

SURFACE WATER OF THE OCEANS circulates in huge currents that generally carry warmer water toward the poles and colder water toward the equator. Extremely large quantities of energy are stored in the uppermost 100 meters of the global oceans, and surface ocean currents redistribute this energy from one part of the ocean to another, carrying […]

Temperature Departure from Average (1964–1976)

Atmosphere-Ocean-Cryosphere Interactions

OVER 70% OF THE PLANET'S surface is covered by oceans, which exchange energy and moisture with the overlying atmosphere. Oceans move in response to three main factors — winds moving over the top of them, spatial variations in the density of water, and the Coriolis effect. In addition to responding to wind directions, oceans in […]

Surface Conditions

Where Would You Expect Severe Weather?

YOU ARE A METEOROLOGIST at the National Weather Service and are responsible for providing an overview of weather conditions across the U.S. To do this, you will study maps showing weather conditions at the surface and aloft and then determine where and how different air masses are interacting. In addition, you will identify areas where […]

What Happened During Hurricane Sandy?

What Happened During Hurricane Sandy?

SEVERE STORMS are extremely dangerous, capable of killing thousands of people and inflicting incomprehensible damage. Severe weather — and the more benign varieties — develop, operate, move, and dissipate according to fundamental principles presented in this chapter. Here, we examine Hurricane Sandy, which in 2012 tracked up the East Coast of the U.S., before coming […]

Data from Doppler Radar

How Are We Warned About Severe Weather?

IN 1988, THE U.S. NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE (NWS) began an aggressive program to modernize its capabilities in severe weather detection, forecasting, and communication, in support of its mission to protect life and property. As this program was implemented, weather forecasts have shown amazing improvement, particularly in severe weather advisories. The centerpiece of this modernization was […]

What Equations Are Used in Weather Forecasting Models?

How Are Weather Forecasts Made?

THREE INGREDIENTS ARE NECESSARY for weather — energy, motion (both horizontal and vertical), and atmospheric moisture. The physical processes, such as energy transformations during phase changes of water (between solid, liquid, and gaseous states) are well understood, but several problems limit accurate weather forecasting. First, the equations describing the various transformations across three-dimensional space are […]

Changes in Water Temperature

What Affects the Strength of a Tropical Cyclone?

AS A TROPICAL CYCLONE MOVES, it responds quickly to changes in the environment it encounters. In some cases, environ mental changes will cause a tropical cyclone to strengthen, perhaps becoming a hurricane or becoming a stronger hurricane. In other cases, the new environmental conditions cause a cyclone to weaken, dissipate, and eventually disappear. Considering the […]

What Are the Characteristics of a Tropical Cyclone?

What Is a Tropical Cyclone?

HURRICANES AND OTHER TROPICAL CYCLONES are some of nature's most impressive spectacles. These immense seasonal storms form over warm, tropical waters and can cause extremely heavy precipitation, all the while deriving energy from latent heat released by condensation and deposition. In the Atlantic and eastern Pacific, the most intense type of tropical cyclone is called […]


What Are Some Other Types of Wind Storms?

SEVERE WEATHER INCLUDES VARIOUS WIND STORMS in addition to tornadoes and cyclones. Some of these other storms — with interesting names like waterspouts, microbursts, haboobs, and derechos — can be extremely dangerous. What are their characteristics, how do they form, and where do they occur? Waterspouts A waterspout is a rotating, columnar vortex of air […]

How Does Tornado Frequency Vary Across the Continental U.S.?

Where and When Do Tornadoes Strike?

THE INTERIOR OF NORTH AMERICA has by far the most frequent tornado activity in the world. Tornadoes also occur, but far less frequently, in Europe, in the southeastern parts of South America and South Africa, and in a few other regions. Large parts of some continents, like all of North Africa and northern Asia, do […]

What Is a Tornado and How Does One Form?

What Is a Tornado?

A TORNADO IS THE MOST INTENSE type of storm known, expressed as a column of whirling winds racing around a vortex at speeds up to hundreds of kilometers per hour. The May 1999 tornadoes in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, were estimated to have wind speeds over 500 km/hr. Fortunately, most tornadoes are less than several hundred […]

How Is Lightning Generated?

What Causes Lightning and Thunder?

LIGHTNING IS A DANGEROUS but intriguing weather phenomenon. It results from electrical currents within a storm cloud, releasing tremendous amounts of energy that can strike the ground. In the U.S., more than 80 deaths per year are due to lightning. Although this number is much less than those killed simply by extreme heat and extreme […]

How Does Hail Form?

What Causes Hail?

HAIL IS A BALL OF ICE that forms under freezing temperatures within a cumulonimbus cloud and that subsequently falls toward the surface. Large hail that reaches the surface can do so at high enough speeds and with enough force to smash windows, dent cars, and destroy entire fields of crops. How does hail form, what […]

How Does Thunderstorm Frequency Vary Globally?

Where Are Thunderstorms Most Common?

THUNDERSTORMS CAN OCCUR as isolated single-cell thunderstorms, forming over mountains and other local features, or can be embedded in larger weather systems, like mid-latitude cyclones or multi-cell thunderstorms. By knowing how thunderstorms form, can you predict where they should be most common? How Does Thunderstorm Frequency Vary Globally? Space-based detections of lightning can be used […]

What Conditions Produce Thunderstorms?

THUNDERSTORMS ARE COLUMNS of moist, turbulent air with variable amounts of rain, strong wind, lightning, and hail. They are perhaps the most fundamental of all organized weather systems. They can provide needed rainfall for crops, but they can be accompanied by severe weather. We begin by examining the formation, growth, and decay of an individual […]

Where Do Anticyclones Occur?

How Do Migrating Anticyclones Form and Affect North America?

ANTICYCLONES ARE ROTATING ZONES of high pressure. Most migrate across Earth's surface, guided by large-scale atmospheric circulation, but some stay or reappear in the same general area year after year. As migrating anticyclones approach, pass over, or leave an area, they cause changes in wind direction, temperature, and moisture. They are typically associated with non-stormy […]

Formation (Cyclogenesis)

How Do Mid-Latitude Cyclones Move and Evolve?

ONCE FORMED, MID-LATITUDE CYCLONES migrate across the surface and commonly evolve through a series of steps, due to the way that winds circulate around the area of low pressure. Circulation around the cyclone will steer the trailing fronts in a counterclockwise direction (in the Northern Hemisphere), while west-to-east motion of the westerlies and Rossby waves […]

Leeward Side of Mountains

Where Do Mid-Latitude Cyclones Form and Cross North America?

WEATHER FRONTS generally do not exist in isolation, but typically form, migrate, and fade away as part of a larger system called a mid-latitude cyclone. Cold and warm fronts usually trail from a central core of low pressure — a cyclone. While popular culture uses the term “cyclone” to refer to a tornado or other […]

What Processes Occur Along Cold and Warm Fronts?

What Are Fronts?

THE NARROW ZONE separating two different air masses is called a front and is often the site of rising atmospheric motion. Whenever different air masses meet along a front, the less dense, warmer one will be pushed up over the more dense, colder one. If the rising air cools to its dew-point temperature, cloud formation […]

What Are Some Fundamental Controls of Weather?

Why Does Weather Change?

THE ATMOSPHERE IS SO THIN that a single regional mass of cold or warm air can dominate the entire vertical extent of the troposphere. With time, such cold or warm air masses can expand or shrink, become colder or warmer, and can remain stationary or move great distances. In the narrow zone where the two […]

What Is Weather?

When we use the term weather, we are referring to conditions in the atmosphere at some specific time and place, whether it is right now, an hour ago, or sometime next week. Weather refers to the temperature, humidity, and windiness, and if it is fair or there is precipitation. It also refers to whether an […]

Coning Plume

What Do Smoke Plumes Tell Us About Atmospheric Conditions?

THE INTERACTION OF MOISTURE and varying degrees of instability in the atmosphere produce clouds, fog, and precipitation. Clues about local moisture and stability characteristics can be gained simply by looking at evidence in the everyday world. Plumes of smoke or steam coming from the top of smokestacks provide such evidence. In this investigation you will […]

Air Pressure

What Caused the Recent Great Plains Drought?

PARTS OF THE GREAT PLAINS, stretching from Texas to Montana, experienced severe drought in 2012, resulting in huge crop losses and other problems. These losses occurred in spite of recent technological advances, such as improved soil and water management practices and the use of drought-resistant varieties of crops. Some effects, such as crop loss, resulted […]

What Causes a Drought and How Can We Quantify It?

How Can Moisture Extremes Be Characterized?

THERE ARE GREAT EXTREMES in the distribution of moisture, with some regions being very dry for an extended period of time, as during a drought, whereas other regions receive huge amounts of precipitation in a short period of time. The cause of these extremes in moisture can be broad regional shifts in the climate or […]

How Does Precipitation Vary Across North America?

What Is the Distribution of Precipitation?

THE AMOUNT OF PRECIPITATION varies from region to region, season to season, and day to day. The daily variations are related to short-term changes in weather, but variations between regions and seasons reflect differences in the overall climatic setting, such as differences in latitude, prevailing wind directions, proximity to large water bodies, any nearby ocean […]

The Impacts of Freezing Rain

How Do Sleet and Freezing Rain Form?

RAIN AND SNOW ARE THE MOST COMMON forms of precipitation, but other types of precipitation are also important. The term sleet is used for a mixture of snow and rain or for precipitation as small partially frozen pellets that are too small to be called hail. Freezing rain is precipitation that reaches the ground as […]

What Is Precipitation?

How Does Precipitation Form?

THE PROCESS OF PRECIPITATION is vital to life on Earth, helping to redistribute water from the oceans to the atmosphere to the land. Precipitation is the ultimate source of all the fresh water on the planet, which we depend on in our daily lives. How does precipitation occur? What is going on inside clouds that […]

Mean Number of Fog Days Per Month (average for entire year)

Where and When Is Fog Most Likely?

CERTAIN SETTINGS AND CONDITIONS are conducive to the formation of fog, so we might anticipate that some regions will have more fog than others. Also, as temperatures and humidity change with the seasons, some times of the year are likely to be foggier than other times. Considering all the places you know, which ones have […]

What Is Fog?

What Conditions Produce Fog?

FOG IS SIMPLY A CLOUD at ground level, so the same conditions that create a cloud also produce fog. Specifically, fog is produced by cooling of the air, by increasing the humidity of the air, or some combination, with the end result that water vapor content in the air reaches saturation. Fog forms in several […]

Cumuliform Clouds

What Do Clouds Tell Us About Weather?

CLOUDS ARE ACCUMULATIONS of liquid water and ice suspended in the air. The types and amounts of clouds vary from place to place, from time to time, and from season to season. What are the different types of clouds, and how does each type form? Clouds provide clues not only about the amount and distribution […]

Convergence of Low-Level Air Masses

What Mechanisms Can Force Air to Rise?

AIR RISES FOR VARIOUS REASONS, some caused by differences in density between the air and its surroundings, and others a result of externally imposed factors, like a mountain. If an air parcel rises because atmospheric conditions are unstable, free convection results. If air is forced to rise due to external factors, it is called forced convection. […]


How Does the Surface Affect the Rising of Air?

EARTH'S SURFACE CONSISTS OF A VARIETY OF MATERIALS, including bare rock, soils, forests, cities, water, and ice. Each of these materials responds differently to insolation and to changes in temperature and humidity of the adjacent air. In turn, these surface materials can affect the temperature and humidity of that air. On land, these materials are […]

At What Rate Does an Air Parcel Cool As It Rises?

What Happens When Air Rises or Sinks?

THE ATMOSPHERE IS A DYNAMIC ENVIRONMENT, with upward, downward, and sideways motion. What happens to air that rises and encounters different temperatures and pressures? What happens when air sinks? The vertical motions of air cause clouds, precipitation, and many other weather phenomena. At What Rate Does an Air Parcel Cool As It Rises? To explore […]

Which Parts of the U.S. Have the Highest and Lowest Dew Points?

What Is the Dew Point?

ANOTHER USEFUL MEASURE OF HUMIDITY is the dew point, the temperature to which a volume of air must be cooled to become saturated with water vapor. If the air temperature is at the dew point, the air is so saturated with water vapor that vapor begins to condense as drops of liquid water, such as […]

How Does Specific Humidity Vary Globally?

How Does Specific Humidity Vary Globally and Seasonally?

HUMIDITY OF THE AIR VARIES greatly from region to region and between different altitudes in the atmosphere. It also varies from one time to another, such as between different seasons. To compare different regions, altitudes, and seasons, we generally use specific humidity, which expresses the amount of water vapor in the air, independent of variations […]

What Is Specific Humidity?

What Is Humidity?

THE AMOUNT OF WATER VAPOR in the air is referred to as humidity. Humidity is something we can sense, affecting whether the air feels humid or dry. We are most familiar with one measure of humidity — relative humidity, a term commonly used on daily weather reports. There are other measures of humidity, some of […]

What Are Some Important Properties of Water?

How Does Water Occur in the Atmosphere?

THE PRESENCE AND ABUNDANCE OF WATER in the atmosphere are a fundamental control of weather and climate, which both have a profound influence on our lives. The molecular structure of water causes it to have special properties that we can observe every day and that are important to life on Earth. In what forms does […]

Grand Cayman Islands

Atmospheric Moisture

MOISTURE IN THE ATMOSPHERE, in the form of water vapor, liquid water, and ice, controls most aspects of our weather and climate. Moisture moves back and forth from Earth's surface to the atmosphere and, once in the atmosphere, is transferred vertically and laterally by moving air. Atmospheric moisture is expressed as clouds, precipitation, storms, weather […]

What Occurs During Seasonal Circulation Shifts?

GLOBAL ATMOSPHERIC CIRCULATION responds directly to insolation. As the Sun's direct rays migrate seasonally, belts of winds, such as the westerlies, migrate too. In this investigation, you will examine the general circulation of the atmosphere, as expressed by data on air pressure, wind velocity, and cloud cover for two months with very different seasons — […]

How Have Global Pressures and Winds Affected History in the North Atlantic?

How Have Global Pressures and Winds Affected History in the North Atlantic?

INTERCONTINENTAL TRAVEL AND TRADE have relied upon moving currents in the air and oceans. Before the 20th century, when transoceanic travel and shipping relied on wind power, global winds, such as the trade winds and westerlies, dictated which directions of travel were possible at different latitudes. The directions of global winds therefore greatly influenced the […]

What Are the Features of the Asian Monsoon?

What Causes Monsoons?

A COMMON MISCONCEPTION is that the word “monsoon” refers to a type of rainfall, but the word actually refers to winds that reverse directions depending on the season. One of these seasonal wind directions typically brings dry conditions and the other brings wet conditions. Monsoons impact a majority of the world's population. What Are the […]

Is There a Circulation Cell in the Mid-latitudes?

How Does Air Circulate Aloft over the Mid-Latitudes?

SURFACE WINDS IN THE MID-LATITUDES are generally from west to east in both hemispheres, but the pattern of air movement is less well developed higher in the troposphere. The main features are two currents of fastmoving air — jet streams — that encircle the globe near the boundaries of the mid-latitudes. What factors determine the […]

General Circulation at Mid-Latitudes

How Does Surface Air Circulate in Mid-Latitudes?

THE MID-LATITUDES are regions, in the Northern Hemisphere and Southern Hemisphere, that lie between the tropics (23.5°) and polar circles (66.5°). Air circulation in the mid-latitudes is driven by pressures set up by circulation in the adjacent tropics and polar regions, and by the Coriolis effect. Surface winds within most of the mid-atitudes blow from […]

General Circulation at High Latitudes

How Does Air Circulate in High Latitudes?

POLAR REGIONS RECEIVE LITTLE INSOLATION compared to the rest of Earth. As a result, the poles are very cold places, which experience winter darkness for months at a time. Air circulation around the poles reflects this relative lack of solar heating and also the proximity to the axis of rotation for the planet. The encroachment […]

General Circulation in the Tropics

How Does Air Circulate in the Tropics?

TROPICAL CIRCULATION is driven by the intense solar heating of land and seas near the equator. The heated air rises and spreads out from the equator, setting up huge, recirculating cells of flowing air. The rising air results in a belt of tropical low pressure, and where the air descends back toward the surface is […]

What Influences the Patterns of Airflow Around High- and Low-Pressure Areas?

How Do the Coriolis Effect and Friction Influence Atmospheric Circulation?

THE CORIOLIS EFFECT AND FRICTION affect the patterns of air movement set in motion by pressure gradients. These phenomena influence wind direction from local scales, affecting the rotation and wind patterns of individual storms, to global scales, affecting wind patterns of the entire planet. How do pressure gradients, the Coriolis effect, and friction explain wind […]

How Do We Depict Upper-Level Wind Patterns?

How Does the Coriolis Effect Influence Wind Direction at Different Heights?

PRESSURE GRADIENTS INITIATE MOTION in the atmosphere, but the actual direction in which the air moves is greatly influenced by the Coriolis effect. Close to the surface, where friction with the planetary surface is greatest and wind velocities are lowest, the pressure gradient dominates. Higher in the atmosphere, winds have higher velocities and the Coriolis […]

What Is the Coriolis Effect?

What Is the Coriolis Effect?

THE PRESSURE-GRADIENT FORCE drives airflow in the atmosphere, but winds do not blow in exactly the direction we would predict if we only consider pressure gradients. All objects — whether air masses, ocean waters, or airplanes — moving across the surface of the Earth display an apparent deflection from the objects' intended path. The cause […]

What Pressure Variations and Air Motions Result from Differences in Insolation?

How Do Variations in Insolation Cause Global Patterns of Air Pressure and Circulation?

SEASONAL AND LATITUDINAL VARIATIONS IN INSOLATION cause regional differences in air pressure, which in turn set up regional and global systems of air circulation. These circulation patterns account for many of the characteristics of a region's climate (hot, cold, wet, dry), prevailing wind directions, and typical weather during different times of the year. Here, we […]

What Is a Chinook Wind and Where Do They Form?

What Are Some Significant Regional Winds?

DIFFERENCES IN AIR PRESSURE cause a variety of regional to local wind conditions, such as those associated with storms, which are discussed in the chapter on weather. Some local winds are not so much related to weather systems as they are to differences in pressure that tend to occur at certain times of the year […]

The Sea Breeze (Daytime)

How Do Variations in Temperature and Pressure Cause Local Atmospheric Circulation?

PRESSURE GRADIENTS INDUCE FLOW at all scales, including local and regional ones, arising from unequal heating by insolation and latent heat, by differing thermal responses of land versus sea, and even from the construction of large metropolitan areas. Such circulations contribute to the climate of a place, particularly in the absence of, or interaction with, […]

How Do We Measure the Strength and Direction of Wind?

What Causes Pressure Variations and Winds?

THE MOVEMENT OF AIR IN THE ATMOSPHERE produces wind, or movement of air relative to Earth's surface. Circulation in the atmosphere is caused by pressure differences generated primarily by uneven insolation. Air flows from areas of higher pressure, where air sinks, to areas of lower pressure, where air rises. How Do We Measure the Strength […]

How Does Air Pressure Vary Laterally?

What Is Air Pressure?

PRESSURE OF GASES WITHIN THE ATMOSPHERE is highly variable, both vertically and laterally. These variations in pressure define the structure of the atmosphere and also determine the nature and direction of atmospheric motions. If one place in the atmosphere has higher pressure than another place, this imbalance of pressure (and therefore also atmospheric mass) must […]

How Does a Gas Behave When Heated or Cooled?

How Do Gases Respond to Changes in Temperature and Pressure?

THE ATMOSPHERE CONSISTS LARGELY OF GASES, with lesser amounts of liquids, such as drops of water, and solids, such as dust and ice. By nature, gases expand easily or contract in volume in response to changes in temperature and pressure. Variations in temperature and resulting changes in pressure are the main drivers of motion in […]

How Do We Evaluate Sites for Solar-Energy Generation?

SOLAR ENERGY IS A RENEWABLE SOURCE of light, heat, and electricity. Solar energy is typically collected with a solar panel, which can generate electricity or can heat air, water, or some other fluid. You have an opportunity to evaluate the solar-energy potential of five sites in South America, using concepts you have learned about insolation […]

How Are Variations in Insolation Expressed Between the North and South Poles?

VARIATIONS IN INSOLATION, both as a function of latitude and from season to season, help explain many aspects of our world — average temperatures, hours of daylight, type of climate and weather, the type of landscape, and the overall livability of a place. For a transect down the west coasts of the Americas, from the […]

Depth of Heating, Cooling, and Mixing

Why Do Temperatures Vary Between Oceans and Continents?

WATER EXHIBITS VERY DIFFERENT thermal properties from those displayed by the rocks and soil of land. These differences in thermal properties cause oceans and land to warm and cool at different rates, leading to significant temperature variations between oceans and land. Such differences help explain major patterns of global temperature and climate. How Do Water […]

How Does Insolation Vary Spatially?

How Do Insolation and Outgoing Radiation Vary Spatially?

FLOWS OF ENERGY into and out of Earth's system vary spatially, as a function of latitude, land or sea, cloud cover, and many other factors. The pattern of insolation also changes over several timescales, from daily rotation of the planet to the longer changes in season, causing spatial and temporal imbalances — zones of surplus […]

Sensible and Latent Heat Flux from Earth’s Surface

How Does Earth Maintain an Energy Balance?

SIXTY-NINE PERCENT OF INSOLATION received at the outside of the Earth's atmosphere is available for sensible, ground, and latent heating. Ultimately all of this energy must be returned to space as longwave radiation in order to attain a balance between incoming and outgoing radiation. A greater loss to space would cool the global system, and […]

Shortwave Radiation Converted to Sensible Heat

What Happens to Insolation That Reaches the Surface?

APPROXIMATELY HALF OF INSOLATION is transmitted to Earth's surface, and this energy is variably reflected, absorbed, and re-emitted. Earth absorbs energy of short wavelengths, including insolation, but re-emits it at longer wavelengths. Certain greenhouse gases in the Earth's atmosphere interact with this outgoing long-wavelength radiation, complicating the return of this energy to space and helping […]

How Is Insolation Intercepted in the Atmosphere?

How Much Insolation Reaches the Surface?

NOT ALL INSOLATION reaches Earth's surface. Much of it is intercepted (absorbed, scattered, or reflected) by the atmosphere. Measurements and models allow us to account for the destination of insolation globally. Approximately 69% of the energy arriving at the top of the atmosphere remains in the Earth's system, of which 20% is stored (absorbed) in […]

What Is Causing Depletion of Ozone and Formation of the “Ozone Hole”?

What Is Ozone and Why Is It So Important?

OZONE IS AN ESSENTIAL GAS in the atmosphere, shielding life on the surface from deadly doses of ultraviolet radiation from the Sun. In the past several decades, there has been major concern about the loss of ozone in our atmosphere, particularly a seasonal decrease in ozone above Antarctica. How can a gas that generally constitutes […]


How Does Insolation Interact with the Atmosphere?

INSOLATION REACHES THE EARTH but has to pass through the atmosphere before it reaches us. The atmosphere does not transmit all of the Sun's energy; some wavelengths of energy are partially or completely blocked by atmospheric components, such as gas molecules. The interactions between insolation and the atmosphere explain many aspects of our world, like […]

Why Does the Sun Rise and Set?

What Controls When and Where the Sun Rises and Sets?

THE SUN RISES EACH MORNING and sets each evening, but at slightly different times from day to day. Also, the Sun does not rise or set in exactly the same direction every day, although the changes from day to day are so gradual as to be unnoticeable. Over the course of several months, however, we […]

The Tropics

Why Do We Have Seasons?

DURING THE YEAR MOST LOCATIONS progress through different seasons, from warmer summers to cooler winters and back again. The progression from season to season accompanies changes in the position of the Sun, such as from higher in the sky during the summer to lower in the sky during the winter. Except at the equator, the […]

Why Does Insolation Vary from Place to Place?

DESPITE A FAIRLY CONSISTENT supply of energy from the Sun, considerable differences in the quantity of insolation are experienced between the poles and equator, and also over several timescales — most noticeably, changes between seasons and between night and day. On Earth, variations in insolation are mostly related to latitude. What Controls the Insolation Reaching […]

What Causes Changes in Insolation?

THE ENERGY TRANSMITTED from the Sun to Earth, called incoming solar radiation, or insolation, has varied only slightly during the short time for which we have accurate measurements from satellites. How much energy do we receive from the Sun, and why does it vary at all? How Much Energy Is Transferred from the Sun to […]

What Is the Electromagnetic Radiation Spectrum?

What Controls Wavelengths of Radiation?

ELECTROMAGNETIC RADIATION takes many different forms, each of which have very different properties, determined by their wavelengths. Variations in wavelength explain the existence of different colors and warming of the Earth due to climate change. How are differences in the wavelength of electromagnetic energy (EMR) expressed in our world and in the Solar System? What Range […]

What Are Some Common Examples of Electromagnetic Radiation?

What Is Electromagnetic Radiation?

ELECTROMAGNETIC RADIATION is one of the fundamental forces of nature. It dominates our daily interactions with the world, determining the color of objects, the character of the air we breathe, and the physical characteristics of the water we drink. Electromagnetic radiation is essential to the operation of weather and our climate system and to all […]

What Are the Forms of Latent Heat?

What Is Latent Heat?

WATER OCCURS IN ALL THREE PHYSICAL STATES —solid, liquid, and gas — at temperatures commonly found on Earth. Although the chemical structure of water remains unchanged from state to state, the three states, also called phases, are differentiated by the physical spacing of the water molecules. Considerable quantities of energy, contained as latent heat, are […]

What Is Temperature and How Do We Measure It?

What Are Heat and Temperature?

THE TERMS HEAT AND TEMPERATURE are used every day, but what do they actually mean? Temperature is a measure of the object's internal kinetic energy — the energy contained within molecules that are moving, and heat is thermal energy transferred from one object to another. Moving molecules drive many processes in the Earthocean-atmosphere system, such […]

What Is Energy?

What Is Energy and How Is It Transmitted?

THE TRANSMISSION OF ENERGY, and the interactions between energy and matter, define the character of our planet and control weather, climate, and the distribution of life, including humans. Here, we examine the fundamentals of energy, including what it is, where it comes from, and how it is moved from one place to another. What Is […]

What Is the Structure of the Atmosphere?

What Is the Atmosphere?

A RELATIVELY THIN LAYER OF GAS — the atmosphere — surrounds Earth's surface. The atmosphere shields us from harmful high-energy rays from space, is the source of our weather and climate, and contains the oxygen, water vapor, and other gases on which all life depends. What is the character and composition of the atmosphere, and […]


Energy and Matter in the Atmosphere

TOPICS IN THIS CHAPTER What Is the Atmosphere? What Is Energy and How Is It Transmitted? What Are Heat and Temperature? What Is Latent Heat? What Is Electromagnetic Radiation? What Controls Wavelengths of Radiation? What Causes Changes in Insolation? Why Does Insolation Vary from Place to Place? Why Do We Have Seasons? What Controls When […]

What Might Happen If This Location Is Deforested?

YOU HAVE BEEN EMPLOYED by a county planning commission. You are asked to assess any possible impacts of logging (removing trees) of a mountainside in the area under your jurisdiction. To address the problem, you rely on your broad perspective and skills in the use of maps, satellite-image interpretation, physical geographic principles, and the scientific method. […]

How Did Geographers Help in the 2010 Gulf of Mexico Oil-Spill Cleanup?

ON APRIL 20, 2010, an explosion on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the northern Gulf of Mexico killed 11 workers, injured 17 others, and initiated the most disastrous oil spill in U.S. history. For the next 86 days, oil gushed into the Gulf. This oil spill is an example of a complex problem with […]

How Do We Define Time Globally?

What Is the Role of Time in Geography?

WE LIVE ON A GLOBE THAT ROTATES, causing locations on the surface to pass from day to night and back again. Not everyone witnesses sunrise at the same time, because the Sun rises at different times in different locations. Some ideas from geography, especially the concept of longitude, help us understand these differences and describe […]

What Are Geographic Information Systems?

How Do We Use GIS to Explore Spatial Issues?

MAPS ARE USED FOR REPORTING OBSERVATIONS and making interpretations from previously collected observations, and they can also be analyzed to create new maps. Maps created from aerial photographs, satellite imagery, and field observations can be stored in computer databases called geographic information systems (GIS), where a variety of information can then be combined quickly and […]

How Do We Use Global Positioning Systems and Remote Sensing?

THE GLOBAL POSITIONING SYSTEM GPS and remote sensing have greatly increased the accuracy of geographic field studies and given geographers new methods for performing geographic analyses. GPS helps geographers define spatial relationships among Earth's surface features, and a wide variety of remote sensing techniques help geographers define regional patterns and monitor changing environmental conditions. What […]

Large-Scale Maps

How Do We Use Maps and Photographs?

MAPS ARE AMONG OUR MOST IMPORTANT TOOLS for depicting and analyzing spatial information, whether we are interested in environmental issues or election results. Cartographers generate different kinds of maps that are designed to show Earth's landscape features, its weather and climate, and the distribution of plants, animals, or many other types of variables. Some cover […]

What Are the Major Types of Projections and What Advantages Does Each Offer?

How Do Map Projections Influence the Portrayal of Spatial Data?

EARTH IS NOT FLAT, so a flat map cannot portray all locations accurately. An ideal map would preserve directions, distances, shapes, and areas, but it is not possible to preserve all four of these accurately. Instead, either the shape of features on a map, such as country outlines, is preserved or the area of features […]


What Are Some Other Coordinate Systems?

WE USE OTHER SYSTEMS, besides latitude and longitude, to describe location. These include the Universal Transverse Mercator (UTM) system, the State Plane Coordinate System (SPCS), and the Public Land Survey System (PLSS). Each is very useful for certain applications, and some are used to specify the location of real-estate properties appearing on legal documents associated […]

What Are Latitude and Longitude?

What Do Latitude and Longitude Indicate?

IMAGINE TRYING TO DESCRIBE the location of an “X” on a featureless sphere. What system would you devise to convey the location? If the sphere did not have any markings or seams, we would need to first establish a frame of reference — a place on the sphere from which to reference the location of […]

How Do We Depict Earth’s Surface?

EARTH'S SURFACE DISPLAYS various features, including mountains, hillslopes, and river valleys. We commonly represent such features on the land surface of an area with a topographic map or shaded-relief map, each of which is useful for certain purposes. Some maps allow us to visualize the landscape and navigate across the land, whereas others permit the […]

How Do Earth’s Four Spheres Interact?

ENERGY AND MATTER MOVE between the land, water, atmosphere, and biosphere — between the four spheres. There are various expressions of these interactions, many of which we can observe in our daily lives. In addition to natural interactions, human activities, such as the clearing of rain forests, can affect interactions between the spheres. Changes in […]

What Are Some Important Earth Cycles?

MATTER AND ENERGY MOVE within and between each of the four spheres. A fundamental principle of all natural sciences is that energy and matter can be neither created nor destroyed, but only transferred from one form to another — the First Law of Thermodynamics. A second principle is that energy and matter tend to become […]

How Do Natural Systems Operate?

EARTH HAS A NUMBER OF SYSTEMS in which matter and energy are moved or transformed. These involve processes of the solid Earth, water in all its forms, the structure and motion of the atmosphere, and how these three domains (Earth, water, and air) influence life. Such systems are dynamic, responding to any changes in conditions, […]

How Do We Investigate Geographic Questions?

PHYSICAL GEOGRAPHERS STUDY DIVERSE PROBLEMS, ranging from weather systems and climate change to ocean currents and landscape evolution. The types of data required to investigate each of these problems are equally diverse, but most geographers try to approach the problem in a similar, objective way, guided by spatial information, and relying on various geographic tools. […]

What Is Physical Geography?

PHYSICAL GEOGRAPHY IS THE STUDY of spatial distributions of phenomena across the landscape, processes that created and changed those distributions, and implications for those distributions on people. Geography is both a natural and social science. Geographers think broadly, emphasizing interconnections and complex issues, solving complicated problems such as resource management, environmental impact assessment, disease diffusion, […]

The Nature of Physical Geography

THE EARTH HAS A WEALTH of intriguing features, from dramatic mountains to intricate coastlines and deep ocean trenches, from lush, beautiful valleys to huge areas of sparsely vegetated sand dunes. Above the surface is an active, ever-changing atmosphere with clouds, storms, and variable winds. Occupying all these environments is life. In this chapter and book, […]

The Physical and Human Geographies of Japan

With its four major islands—Hokkaido, Honshu, Kyushu, and Shikoku—as well as thousands of smaller ones, Japan has a total land area of approximately 145,825 square miles. The distance from the northernmost tip of Hokkaido to extreme southern Kyushu is approximately the same as the distance from Bangor, Maine, to Mobile, Alabama, in the United States […]

Average Annual Temperatures of Coastal Locations

Physical Landscapes

Three major landform regions divide Chile: the Andes Mountains, the coast and islands, and the Central Valley. The regions run north to south and parallel to each other. The Andes region is an awesome mountain barrier. Its majestic peaks of spectacular height and bone-chilling temperatures define the country's eastern border. The nation's coast includes imposing […]

Huge mountains cover more than one-third of the total land area of this island nation. The remaining parts of the island are flat plains and rolling hills. Cuba is the principal island and is surrounded by four main groups of islands: the Colorados, the Sabana-Camagüey, the Jardines de la Reina, and the Canarreos. The nation’s highest point is the Pico Real del Turquino (6,578 feet or 2,005 meters), located in the Sierra Maestra mountains.

Physical Landscapes

Although we often speak of Cuba as one island, Cuba is actually an archipelago, or group of islands, whose total combined area is 42,803 square miles (110,860 square kilometers). Cuba is the largest island in this archipelago, making up 95 percent of the total land area of the island group. The second largest island, Isla […]

The Dominican Republic is home to sugar plantations, four major rivers, many lakes and lagoons, and five important mountain ranges. Although the climate year-round is tropical—earning it the nickname “the endless summer”—temperatures as low as 32ºF (0ºC) are possible in the mountains.

Physical Landscapes

The natural environment forms the foundation upon which all human societies depend for their survival. This is not to say that nature determines the way people live within a particular natural setting. To the contrary, a people's culture, or their way of life, is determined by human ingenuity—what they have learned and are able to […]

Poland: Physical Landscapes

A country's physical environment can offer opportunities and challenges to its people. Poland's natural conditions are no exception. Nature provides the canvas upon which people paint their own unique cultural landscapes—­the human imprint on Earth's surface. People are guided by their particular needs, as well as by the financial and technological resources they command. The […]

Ireland’s Physical Environment

Fado, fado, Ireland's geologic roots began with the formation of Western Europe. The island of Ireland today is a direct result of the earth-building forces that created Eurasia over two billion years ago. Over time, layers of sediment accumulated on the floor of ancient geologic seas, creating limestone. A mixture of this limestone and lava […]