Practitioners of physical geography study of processes and patterns in the natural environment. Within physical geography, the Earth is often split into several spheres or environments: the atmosphere, biosphere, cryosphere, geosphere, hydrosphere, lithosphere, and pedosphere. Research in physical geography is often interdisciplinary and commonly uses the a systems approach.
Physical geography can be divided into several sub-fields, including, but not limited to the following:
- Biogeography - studying geographic patterns of species distribution and the processes that result in these patterns. The field can largely be divided into five sub-fields: island biogeography, paleobiogeography, phylogeography, phytogeography, zoogeography.
- Climatology - studying the Earth's climate. Climatology examines both the nature of micro (local) and macro (global) climates and the natural and anthropogenic influences on them. The field is sub-divided by climates of various regions, and the study of specific phenomena or time periods (e.g. paleoclimatology).
- Environmental geography - studying the spatial aspects of interactions between humans and the natural world. The sub-field bridges human and physical geography, and often requires an understanding of the dynamics of physical processes as well as the ways in which human societies conceptualize the environment. It has largely become the domain of studying environmental management or anthropogenic influences.
- Geomorphology - studying the processes by which the Earth's surface is shaped, both at the present and in the past. Geomorphology seeks to understand landform history and dynamics, and predict future changes through a combination of field observations, physical experiments, and numerical modeling.
- Hydrology - studying water quality & quantity as it moves and accumulates on the Earth.
- Landscape ecology - a sub-discipline of ecology and geography that addresses how spatial variation in the landscape affects ecological processes such as the distribution and flow of energy, materials and individuals in the environment. The main difference between biogeography and landscape ecology is that the landscape ecology is concerned the flow of energy and material and their impacts on the landscape, whereas biogeography is concerned with the spatial patterns of species and chemical cycles.
- Quaternary science - an inter-disciplinary field of study focusing on the Quaternary period, which encompasses the last 2.6 million years. The field studies the last ice age and the recent interstadial the Holocene and uses proxy evidence to reconstruct the past environments during this period to infer the climatic and environmental changes that have occurred.