What’s Geography?

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Geography maps and describes the physical and human features of the Earth. It has two branches: physical and human geography, each with many subcategories. The discipline has been practiced since ancient times and has advanced with technology, including satellite imagery and software like Google Maps.

Geography is an extremely broad discipline that seeks to map and describe both the physical features of the Earth, such as mountains, and its human features, such as the borders of countries or the distributions of religions. The word, first used by Eratosthenes (276 – 194 BC), literally means “to write on the Earth”. It is sometimes called “the bridge between the physical and human sciences,” but it is divided into two branches that focus on each separately: human and physical.

This discipline can be divided into a dozen subcategories by major branch. In physical geography, subcategories include biogeography, climatology, paleoclimatology, coastal, environmental, geodesy (geometry), geomorphology, hydrography, glaciology, landscape ecology, oceanography, pedology (study of soil), paleogeography, and quaternary sciences (study of the last 2.6 million years). In human geography, subcategories include development, culture, economics, health, history, population, politics, religion, social, transportation, tourism, and urban geography.

Geography has been practiced since at least classical antiquity, around 600 BC. Anaximander of Miletus is the first true geographer, according to slightly later Greek sources. In ancient times, only Europe, the Near East and North Africa were recognized by the West. Other global civilizations, such as the Incas, ancient China and ancient India were similarly isolated, knowing little about the world outside their immediate area. During the late 13th century, the famous explorer Marco Polo traveled from Europe to China, making Europeans more aware of the Far East and culturally linking the two distant places. Modern geography really began during the Age of Exploration, starting in the 15th century, when the Americas were added to maps and many people around the world became aware of the five continents. Australia wasn’t discovered until the 17th century and Antarctica not until the 13th.

Today, modern geography is an advanced discipline. Thanks to satellite imagery, the Earth has been mapped with a resolution better than about 10 m and military satellites are thought to have a resolution of 10 cm. The exact elevations of most major mountains are known to within a few meters. Software programs like Google Maps make precise geographic information available to anyone with an Internet connection.

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