The Earth's Land Surface: Landforms and Processes in Geomorphology


Kenneth J. Gregory

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  • Chapters
  • Front Matter
  • Back Matter
  • Subject Index
  • Part I: Visualizing the Land Surface

    Part II: Dynamics of the Land Surface

    Part III: Landform Evolution

    Part IV: Environments of the Land Surface

    Part V: Management of the Land Surface - Future Prospects

  • Copyright

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    In common with many others of my generation I first met geomorphology through Horrocks (1954) and then Wooldridge and Morgan (first published 1937, my copy 1954) as a school prize. Geomorphology then, in the 1950s, was so different - pre satellite, pre processes, pre techniques, pre computers, pre geo-morphological journals. It is a paradox that now, when the emphasis in the environmental sciences has been towards a more holistic view, the trend in education has been to focus selectively upon particular areas. Thus the fissiparist reductionist approach contrasts starkly with the holistic imperative. Is this a time for reflection, in the light of the progress of the last 100 years, on how we make the journey, and whether we are going in the right direction? In this volume the emphasis upon landforms will be seen as retrograde by some - possibly as a return to rote learning or to “capes and bays”. Whereas geomorphology started with a focus on landforms, it developed to the study of process and then may have become over-selective by concentrating on particular environments to the exclusion of others. But it is landforms that are the stuff of scenery and it is surely of interest to know how they have been studied and have produced reactions in landscape interpretations. Although detailed explanation of suggested origins cannot be given in the space available here, it can be explored using books, articles and the resources of the internet. Because the way in which we understand the land surface of the Earth depends upon those who have studied it, each chapter contains a short profile of at least one individual whose contributions have advanced our understanding of that land surface. Such profiles are included because to understand the epistemology of a discipline it is necessary to know something about the people who have influenced the epistemological development. Although not every one will agree with the choice of scientists, especially as they are all male (but see topic suggested at end of Chapter 1), they do provide a range of the types of influence - some within and some external to geomorphology, some from previous centuries and some comparatively modern. Readers can investigate for themselves the contributions of other influential individuals. In the past, larger books were required which were comprehensive and could be followed up by reference to articles in research journals. Now the internet resource suggests perhaps a shorter book is needed as a basis for rapid searching - many of the themes introduced in the following pages can initially be explored through the internet. As many graphic illustrations are now available on the internet figures have deliberately been kept as few as possible. Colour plates are located at the end of the book. Terms in the Glossary (p. 303) are shown in bold when first mentioned. Writing a book of this kind at the end of my career has been an attempt to reflect the enjoyment that I have derived from study of the land surface of the Earth. I hope that similar enjoyment may be experienced by some readers.


    I much appreciate the advice received from several individuals who have commented on portions of the text, including Professor Vic Baker, Professor Tony Brown, Professor Anne Chin, Dr Peter Downs, Professor Andrew Goudie, Professor Will Graf, Professor Angela Gurnell, Professor Peter Haggett, Professor Vishwas Kale, Dr Colin Prowse, Professor Matti Seppala, Professor Mike Thomas and Professor Des Walling. I also appreciate Robert Rojek's suggestion that stimulated the idea for this book.

    Every effort has been made to establish copyright, make acknowledgement and to obtain appropriate permissions for figures and plates but, if any have been missed, please let me know.

    It is customary to acknowledge one's wife: Chris helped in so many ways, not only reading through the whole text and making helpful comments but she continues to provide unfailing support, which is greatly appreciated.

  • Glossary of Key Advances

    Many definitions have been included throughout the preceding chapters, often placed in tables to avoid fragmenting the text. However studies of the land surface of the Earth over the last 100 years have reflected a number of fundamental changes in how we approach, investigate and value the land surface - all reflected in the way that geomorphology has developed. Some of these changes are reflected in foundation milestones (see Table 2.1), in debates (see Table 2.5), or in conceptual thinking (see Table 5.4), but the definitions provided here reflecting major changes and also linking mentions in the text, could therefore be thought of as forming a conclusion - to which you may wish to add further items.

    Adaptive cycle (Figure 5.3) acknowledges that systems may exist in multiple steady states, flipping from one state to another as thresholds are transgressed (Table 5.4). A related idea is adaptive management which proceeds in the face of uncertainty, does not assume that the system being managed is understood, and adapts management in the light of experience.

    Anthropogeomorphology is the study of humans as geomorphological agents, so that investigation of the land surface included human impacts in the noosphere and anthroposphere (see Tables 3.1, 8.3 and 8.6).

    Biomes are major ecological communities characterized by a dominant type of vegetation, and their association with major climates was basic for climatic and climatogenetic geomorphology (p. 159) and, recently, 18 anthropogenic biomes have been identified as a basis for integrating human and ecological systems p. 67, Chapter 3).

    Catastrophism is the notion that land surface processes are affected by sudden and violent events; it complements uniformitarianism and gradualism (e.g. see Chapter 2, p. 22).

    Closure applies to the limits of disciplines. The land surface is studied by several disciplines, each one cannot study all aspects, and closure refers to the extent of a single discipline.

    Culture is associated with a particular form or stage of civilisation, now realised to affect how the land surface is perceived, managed and developed (see p. 296, Table 12.6).

    Databases are an integrated collection of logically-related records or files which consolidate information in a consistent way, can easily be accessed, managed and updated, and can provide material for many applications.

    Dating methods for time estimation are necessary to establish stages of land surface development and the age of landforms. They became more precise with the advent of radiocarbon dating establishing the age of organic materials up to c.40,000 years old based on the decay of the radioactive isotope 14C within organic materials. Recent advances (see Tables 2.1 and 2.3) have greatly advanced knowledge of rates of land surface development including oxygen isotope stages and cosmogenic methods (see Table 5.3).

    Design with nature is managing the land surface to imitate nature as much as possible rather than using hard engineering. It is sometimes referred to as soft engineering and can be achieved by restoration or rehabilitation of environment (see Chapter 11).

    Digital elevation model (DEM) models land surface height whereas a digital terrain model (DTM) models shape of the land surface; both are used in Geographic Information Systems.

    Ecological footprint is the amount of land required to sustain cities and expresses their environmental impact (see Chapter 11).

    Electronic distance measurement (EDM) is a highly accurate method of measuring distance between two points based on transit time of electromagnetic waves between an emitting instrument, a reflector and back again; it displaced traditional distance measuring survey instruments.

    Environmental awareness, now often thought of as awareness of environmental issues, was important as the environmental movement developed in the 1960s with greater public knowledge of the land surface encouraging public participation in decision-making.

    Environmental change occurs naturally in response to forcing factors operating over a range of time scales, embracing human impacts and global climate change. Appreciation of the range of changes advanced understanding of the land surface and has embraced concepts of resilience (pp. 134), vulnerability, and panarchy (p. 135).

    Environmental hazards are natural processes that can damage the land surface or property and take human lives; management is required to manage and mitigate hazards (see Tables 3.7 and 12.2).

    Environmental impact assessment (EIA) is the process of determining and evaluating the positive and negative effects of a proposed action on the environment before a decision is taken to proceed or not. Environmental Impact Statements (EIS) are required in many countries prior to planning proposals being approved so that implications of impacts need to be estimated.

    Equilibrium, the state of balance created by a variety of forces so that the state remains unchanged over time unless the controlling forces change, was developed for different types of equilibrium and succeeded by recognition of non-equilibrium situations, realizing that characteristic (steady-state) equilibrium, zonal, and mature forms may be complemented by systems that have multiple potential characteristic or equilibrium forms, and others having no particular normative state at all (see Table 5.4).

    Factor of safety, the ratio of resistance to force, means that when <1 failure can occur; it is used most frequently in studying slope stability (Chapter 4, p. 71).

    Geographical Information Systems (GIS), the collection, analysis, storage and display of data spatially referenced to the surface of the Earth, became possible with digital computers; they enable discovery of relationships and patterns between characteristics and processes, for example in land systems.

    Global Positioning Systems (GPS), a navigation system using a constellation of 24 orbiting satellites, available since 1994, enables determination of a specific location anywhere on the surface of the Earth and so speeds up survey and measurement.

    Global warming, the rise in near-surface atmospheric temperature due to human activities, especially increased amounts of greenhouse gases, has consequences for the land surface as a result of the greenhouse effect, part of a high CO2 world.

    Historical contingency recognizes that the state of a system or environment is partially dependent on one or more process states or upon events in the past, thus including inheritance which relates to features inherited from previous conditions, so that management of the land surface has to be designed for the particular area.

    Holistic view acknowledges the need to understand how a land surface system operates as well as to know the sum of its component parts. Thus any problem should not be considered exclusively by a single discipline but in the wider context, by looking at relationships as a whole.

    International System of Uunits (SI) is the most widely used metric system of measurement since 1960.

    Land system, an area with a recurring pattern of topography, soils and vegetation, was used for resource surveys but is now also employed for the grouping of land-forms in type areas (for example, Tables 8.1 and 8.8).

    Modelling expresses theories, processes, events or systems in concepts or mathematical terms; models are any abstraction or simplification of reality, enabling progress in studies of the land surface since the quantitative revolution of the 1960s (see Table 5.9).

    Natural environment is the environment pre human activity, unlike the built environment which consists of the areas and components strongly influenced by humans; it is the physical character of a place including physical environment which can apply to cities.

    Non-linear methods, unlike linear methods which assume direct relationships between cause and effect, do not have easily derived solutions, have responses which can be chaotic and do not settle down to a fixed equilibrium condition or value. Realization that relatively small events can trigger large and rapid changes encouraged use of non-linear systems; chaos theory and catastrophe theory can account for sudden shifts of a system from one state to another as a result of the system being moved across a threshold condition (see Table 5.4).

    Noosphere, or anthroposphere, is the realm of human consciousness in nature or the ‘thinking’ layer arising from the transformation of the biosphere under the influence of human activity. Importance of direct and indirect impacts of human activity realized to be significant for the land surface and its management (see Table 3.1).

    Palimpsest, inheritance where a suite of landforms are ‘written’ on the landscape beneath, so that new landforms combine with remnants of a previous surface (see p. 165, Chapter 7; p. 187, Chapter 8).

    Paradigms, practices within which science operates, recognition of which facilitated debates progressing understanding of the land surface (see Table 2.5).

    Plate tectonics involves movement of rigid plates of the lithosphere causing seismic and tectonic activity along their boundaries.

    Process domains are combinations of land surface processes often associated with particular zones.

    Quaternary chronology is the sequence of stages of the Pleistocene and Holocene (about the last 2 million years) now identified universally from isotopic studies of deep sea sediments and glacier cores, succeeding chronologies that were difficult to correlate from one continent to another.

    Remote sensing, often thought of as the collection of data from orbital satellites, is the use of electromagnetic sensors to record images of the environment which, since the 1960s, complement ground survey information. Developments continue to occur such as LiDAR (light detection and ranging) which allows accurate measurements of topography, can measure changes of glaciers or of land uplift and, like other techniques, can provide data not accessible by traditional survey methods.

    Resilience is the capacity of a system to absorb disturbance and to reorganize while undergoing change but still retaining essentially the same function, structure, identity and feedbacks.

    Restoration involves restoring part of the land surface to a former or original condition and can be employed as an alternative to hard engineering, with various terms used to signify different ways of making an area appear more ‘natural’.

    Sensitivity is the likelihood of response to slight changes, expressed as the ratio between the magnitude of adjustment and the magnitude of change in the stimulus causing the adjustment (see Figure 5.2).

    Systems are a set of components, and relationships between them, functioning to act as a whole, providing an approach (since 1962) that focuses on the total land surface rather than on selected aspects. Self-organizing systems increase in complexity, their dynamics being a function of positive and negative feedbacks, thus precluding linear explanations and meaning that uncertainty and limited predictability prevail (see Table 3.3).

    Thresholds are stages or tipping points at which essential characteristics change dramatically, they are boundary conditions separating two distinct phases or equilibrium conditions. Although not easy to isolate they potentially indicate where and how much change will occur and may give clues about when and why.

    Uniformitarianism is the present as the key to the past, so that land surface processes have operated for much of Earth's history (see Table 2.1); it includes actualism (effects of present processes) and gradualism (surface changes require long periods of time).

    Colour Plates

    Plate 1

    Figure 3.2 Tectonic plates in (A); main types of plate boundaries in (B); and processes driving landscape evolution in (C) showing (left) convergent settings and (right) extensional (rifting) settings

    Plate 2

    MamTor, Derbyshire - the road on Edale shales subject to frequent mass movement was eventually closed after repeated sliding

    Figure 4.7 Mississippi River Delta

    Plate 3

    Figure 5.1 The geologic time spiral

    Figure 5.5 Last glacial maximum in the northern hemisphere (compiled by Jürgen Ehlers from Ehlers and Gibbard, 2004).

    Plate 4

    Figure 7.3 Patterned ground (top) - polygonal ground (ice wedge polygons), Yukon territory, Canada; (below) - sorted nets, Northwest Territories, Canada

    Plate 5

    Figure 7.4 Pingos in the Tuktoyaktuk Peninsula 1988

    Plate 6

    Figure 7.5 Tasman glacier, Southern Alps, New Zealand, 1990 and 2007 In the false-colour images, pale blue indicates ice and snow, electric blue indicates water, green indicates vegetation, and brown indicates rock or bare ground.

    Plate 7

    Figure 7.6 Huascaran ice avalanches, 1962 and 1970

    Plate 8

    Figure 9.4 Alluvial fan between the Kunlun and Altun mountain ranges, southern Taklimakan Desert, Xin Jiang Province, China

    Figure 11.2 Palm Jumeirah, human-made island on the Dubai coast


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