environment

Quo Vadis Physical Geography?

The Canadian Association of Geographers recently held a special session on Changing Priorities in Physical Geography (I did not attend or participate; I was made aware of it by a Canadian colleague). The session description is given here. It got me to thinking about a piece I wrote more than a decade ago in response to a similar mandate, called Laws, Contingencies, and Irreversible Divergence in Physical Geography. I thought I would revisit what I published back in 2004 to see how it holds up. The paper focused on physical geography as science and scholarship, as opposed to the institutional politics of physical geography within geography as a whole, and relative to other disciplines. However, I did predict that physical geography—as geomorphology, climatology, biogeography, soil geography, and geospatial approaches to Earth & environmental sciences—would grow and thrive. However, I also expressed doubt that this work would continue to be called physical geography, and the extent to which it would be conducted under the institutional auspices of geography.

Climate and History: Geography Matters

 

Just finished John Brooke’s Climate Change and the Course of Global History: A Rough Journey (Cambridge University Press, 2014). If nothing else, the book is a remarkable achievement with respect to the breadth and depth of literature and ideas brought to bear, including history, geography, geology, anthropology, economics, climatology, ecology, and archaeology. Brooke also makes a compelling case for a significant role for environmental change in general, and climate change in particular, in influencing human affairs and history (and, of course, vice-versa).

The Perfect Floods of Texas

 

As I write, there is flooding in central Texas, and more to come. The focus is rivers and creeks in the San Antonio and Guadalupe River systems in the Balcones Escarpment area along the San Antonio-Austin Corridor, with effects beginning to felt downstream.

Destroyed trees along banks of the Blanco River, Wimberly, TX, after the flood of 24 May, 2015 (photo by Jay Janner, Associated Press).

Froude for Thought

The Froude number is a hydraulic parameter often used to relate aquatic habitats and biotopes to flow intensity. Independently of some trenchant critiques (see, e.g., Clifford et al. 2006), there seems to be no inherent hydrological, geomorphological, or ecological reason that the Froude number (Fr) should be the best indicator of habitat or ecological niches.

Fr is a dimensionless number that describes flow regimes in open channels and is unquestionably useful in many aspects of hydrology, geomorphology, and engineering. It is the ratio of inertial and gravitational forces:

Fr = V/(g d)0.5

Fr < 1 indicates subcritical or tranquil, and Fr > 1 supercritical or rapid flow. But variations in Fr within the subcritical range (where it typically falls) can be significantly related to, e.g., geomorphic units and habitats within channels.

Shawnee Run, Kentucky

Soil Erosion and Climate Change

 

A lot of us in the geoscience business are concerned these days with interpreting ongoing and past, and predicting future, responses of landforms, soils, and ecosystems to climate change. As one of my interests is rivers, I have noted over the years that in a lot of the literature on paleohydrology the major changes, such as major influxes of sediment, seem to occur at climate transitions, rather than after climate changes or shifts have had a chance to settle in and exert their impacts for awhile.

A related issue is the relationship between precipitation, temperature, runoff, erosion, and vegetation. As climate changes both temperature and precipitation regimes change. And as every physical geography student knows, moisture availability is not just about precipitation, but the balance between precipitation and evapotranspiration (ET). So, if both temperature and precipitation are increasing (as is the case on average on much of the planet now), whether available moisture increases or decreases depends on the relative increases of precipitation and ET.  

Soil erosion on cropland.

Strat-and-Transition Models

 

The reconstruction of past environmental change is more important than ever. First, we look for precedents, principles, and lessons from the past as we try to understand and predict ongoing and future environmental change based on the fundamental wisdom that “if it did happen, it can happen.” Second, all kinds of new ideas on the coevolution of life, landforms, climate, and Earth itself need testing, verification—and maybe most importantly—hypothesis generation from the historical record.

The most important historical records for all but the past couple of centuries are stratigraphic. Environmental change is recorded in the sedimentary rock record, in geologically modern sedimentary deposits, and in soil layers. However, geoscientists have long realized that the stratigraphic record is incomplete—“more gap than record,” Derek Ager famously pointed out, with the preserved events equally famously termed “frozen accidents.” The current state of affairs is well summarized in and recently published volume titled Strata and Time: Probing the Gaps in Our Understanding (Smith et al., 2015).

Mountains of Empowerment

By Guy Spriggs

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