of this domain, captured by Gilbert F. White's geographic concept of the "range of choice," which has been applied to inform policy by illuminating the options available to different actors at different levels (Reuss, 1993). In the case of floodplain occupancy, for instance, such options include building flood control works, controlling development in flood-prone areas, and allowing affected individuals to absorb the costs of disaster. In the case of global climate change, options range from curtailing greenhouse gas (e.g., carbon dioxide) emissions to pursuing business as usual and adapting to change if and when it occurs. Geographers have assembled case studies of societal responses to a wide variety of environmental challenges as analogs for those posed by climate and other environmental change and have examined the ways in which various societies and communities interpret the environments in questions (Jackson, 1984; Demeritt, 1994; Earle, 1996).

Environmental Dynamics

Geographers often approach the study of environmental dynamics from the vantage point of natural science (Mather and Sdasyuk, 1991). Society and its roles in the environment remain a major theme, but human activity is analyzed as one of many interrelated mechanisms of environmental variability or change. Efforts to understand the feedbacks among environmental processes, including human activities, also are central to the geographic study of environmental dynamics (Terjung, 1982). As in the other natural sciences, advancing theory remains an overarching theme, and empirical verification continues to be a major criterion on which efficacy is judged.

Physical geography has evolved into a number of overlapping subfields, although the three major subdivisions are biogeography, climatology, and geomorphology (Gaile and Willmott, 1989). Those who identify more with one subfield than with the others, however, typically use the findings and perspectives from the others to inform their research and teaching. This can be attributed to physical geographers' integrative and cross-cutting traditions of investigation, as well as to their shared natural science perspective (Mather and Sdasyuk, 1991). Boundaries between the subfields, in turn, are somewhat blurred. Biogeographers, for example, often consider the spatial dynamics3 of climate, soils, and topography when they investigate the changing distributions of plants and animals, whereas climatologists frequently take into account the influences that landscape heterogeneity and change exert on climate. Geomorphologists also account for climatic forcing and vegetation dynamics on erosional and depositional process. The three major


The term spatial dynamics refers to the movement, translocation of, or change in phenomena (both natural and human) over geographic space. The study of spatial dynamics focuses on the natural, social, economic, cultural, and historical factors that control or condition these movements and translocations.

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine
500 Fifth St. N.W. | Washington, D.C. 20001

Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.
Terms of Use and Privacy Statement