The Importance of Geomorphology for Physical Geographers

Geomorphology is the study of Earth’s landforms created by mostly physical processes, including physical or chemical changes and those changes influenced by biological processes, including land use. Physical geographers apply geomorphological principals to study how landforms have changed in the past, but increasingly such principals are important for modern applications. Over long geological timespans, plate tectonics have shaped continents. Earthquakes and volcanic activity represent active change that relate to plate tectonic movements. Fluvial, or those involving water, change is among the most significant physical factors that shape the Earth at generally small scales.[1]


Percentage of geomorphology related disasters by type and region from 1900 to 1999 (Source: EM-DAT database). Map: Alca ́ntara-Ayala, 2002.

Percentage of geomorphology related disasters by type and region from 1900 to 1999 (Source: EM-DAT database). Map: Alca ́ntara-Ayala, 2002.

The importance of geomorphology for physical geographers is not only important in understanding Earth’s physical changes but also in preparing for hazards.[2] For instance, understanding issues of deforestation, soil properties, and seasonal precipitation can better assess frequencies of flooding events and their potential danger.

Land use changes, such as pavement that prevents the absorption of water, has hastened physical changes in places where runoff has increased in places due to a lack of open ground and vegetation that absorbs water. Urban environments are often particularly vulnerable to natural disasters as they rapidly change a landscape through removal of native vegetation and construction that paves over land. Urban planning needs to account for natural geomorphic events so that as new urban areas are developed geomorphic factors that would affect urban places could be replicated through proper drainage or use of construction materials that are best adapted to the local environment, including factors such as humidity, rainfall, and temperature.[3]

Informal settlements, or slums, and identifying land use change using geomorphological principals is not only important in identifying hazards, or areas where terrain might be unstable and susceptible to disasters, but as population pressures in some countries have increased more settlement is occurring in marginal lands.[4] A large percentage of people, estimated as potentially as high as one third of the global population, now live in slums, many occupying terrain that are vulnerable to flooding, earthquakes, or poor drainage that can create contaminated water supplies. Geomorphology, as a critical component of physical geography, is needed to understand natural landform changes and potential hazards for populations.


[1] For more on geomorphological principals, see:  Summerfield, Michael A. 1999. Global Geomorphology: An Introduction to the Study of Landforms. [8.] repr. Harlow: Addison Wesley Longman.

[2] For more on examples of geography and geomorphological studies in understanding current hazards, see:  Alcántara-Ayala, Irasema. 2002. “Geomorphology, Natural Hazards, Vulnerability and Prevention of Natural Disasters in Developing Countries.” Geomorphology 47 (2-4): 107–24.

[3] For more on hazard planning using geomorphology in urban environments, see:  Bathrellos, George D., Kalliopi Gaki-Papanastassiou, Hariklia D. Skilodimou, Dimitrios Papanastassiou, and Konstantinos G. Chousianitis. 2012. “Potential Suitability for Urban Planning and Industry Development Using Natural Hazard Maps and Geological–geomorphological Parameters.” Environmental Earth Sciences 66 (2): 537–48. doi:10.1007/s12665-011-1263-x.

[4] For more on how slums are increasingly built on hazardous terrain, see: Owen, Karen K., and David W. Wong. 2013. “An Approach to Differentiate Informal Settlements Using Spectral, Texture, Geomorphology and Road Accessibility Metrics.” Applied Geography 38 (March): 107–18. doi:10.1016/j.apgeog.2012.11.016.