3.1 Physical geography

3.1.1 Water and carbon cycles

This section of our specification focuses on the major stores of water and carbon at or near the Earth’s surface and the dynamic cyclical relationships associated with them. These are major elements in the natural environment and understanding them is fundamental to many aspects of physical geography.

This section specifies a systems approach to the study of water and carbon cycles. The content invites students to contemplate the magnitude and significance of the cycles at a variety of scales, their relevance to wider geography and their central importance for human populations. The section offers the opportunity to exercise and develop geographical skills including observation, measurement and geospatial mapping skills, together with data manipulation and statistical skills including those associated with and arising from fieldwork.

3.1.1.1 Water and carbon cycles as natural systems

Systems in physical geography: systems concepts and their application to the water and carbon cycles inputs – outputs, energy, stores/components, flows/transfers, positive/negative feedback, dynamic equilibrium.

3.1.1.2 The water cycle

Global distribution and size of major stores of water – lithosphere, hydrosphere, cryosphere and atmosphere.

Processes driving change in the magnitude of these stores over time and space, including flows and transfers: evaporation, condensation, cloud formation, causes of precipitation and cryospheric processes at hill slope, drainage basin and global scales with reference to varying timescales involved.

Drainage basins as open systems – inputs and outputs, to include precipitation, evapo-transpiration and runoff; stores and flows, to include interception, surface, soil water, groundwater and channel storage; stemflow, infiltration overland flow, and channel flow. Concept of water balance.

Runoff variation and the flood hydrograph.

Changes in the water cycle over time to include natural variation including storm events, seasonal changes and human impact including farming practices, land use change and water abstraction.

3.1.1.3 The carbon cycle

Global distribution, and size of major stores of carbon – lithosphere, hydrosphere, cryosphere biosphere, atmosphere.

Factors driving change in the magnitude of these stores over time and space, including flows and transfers at plant, sere and continental scales. Photosynthesis, respiration, decomposition, combustion, carbon sequestration in oceans and sediments, weathering.

Changes in the carbon cycle over time, to include natural variation (including wild fires, volcanic activity) and human impact (including hydrocarbon fuel extraction and burning, farming practices, deforestation, land use changes).

The carbon budget and the impact of the carbon cycle upon land, ocean and atmosphere, including global climate.

3.1.1.4 Water, carbon, climate and life on Earth

The key role of the carbon and water stores and cycles in supporting life on Earth with particular reference to climate. The relationship between the water cycle and carbon cycle in the atmosphere. The role of feedbacks within and between cycles and their link to climate change and implications for life on Earth.

Human interventions in the carbon cycle designed to influence carbon transfers and mitigate the impacts of climate change.

3.1.1.5 Quantitative and qualitative skills

Students must engage with a range of quantitative and relevant qualitative skills, within the theme water and carbon cycles. Students must specifically understand simple mass balance, unit conversions and the analysis and presentation of field data.

3.1.1.6 Case studies

Case study of a tropical rainforest setting to illustrate and analyse key themes in water and carbon cycles and their relationship to environmental change and human activity.

Case study of a river catchment(s) at a local scale to illustrate and analyse the key themes above, engage with field data and consider the impact of precipitation upon drainage basin stores and transfers and implications for sustainable water supply and/or flooding.

3.1.2 Hot desert systems and landscapes

This section of our specification focuses on drylands which occur at all latitudes and are characterised by limited soil moisture caused by low precipitation and high evaporation. The focus is on hot deserts and their margins, where the operation of characteristic aeolian and episodic fluvial processes with their distinctive landscape outcomes are readily observable. In common with water and carbon cycles, a systems approach to study is specified.

Student engagement with subject content fosters informed appreciation of the beauty and diversity of deserts and the challenges they present as human habitats. The section offers the opportunity, in the right settings, to exercise and develop geographical skills, including observation, measurement and geospatial mapping skills, together with data manipulation and statistical skills, including those associated with and arising from fieldwork.

3.1.2.1 Deserts as natural systems

Systems in physical geography: systems concepts and their application to the development of desert landscapes – inputs, outputs, energy, stores/components, flows/transfers, positive/negative feedback, dynamic equilibrium. The concepts of landform and landscape and how related landforms combine to form characteristic landscapes.

The global distribution of mid and low latitude deserts and their margins (arid and semi-arid).

Characteristics of hot desert environments and their margins: climate, soils and vegetation (and their interaction). Water balance and aridity index.

The causes of aridity: atmospheric processes relating to pressure, winds, continentality, relief and cold ocean currents.

3.1.2.2 Systems and processes

Sources of energy in hot desert environments: insolation, winds, runoff.

Sediment sources, cells and budgets.

Geomorphological processes: weathering, mass movement, erosion, transportation and deposition.

Distinctively arid geomorphological processes: weathering (thermal fracture, exfoliation, chemical weathering, block and granular disintegration).

The role of wind – erosion: deflation and abrasion; transportation; suspension, saltation, surface creep, deposition.

Sources of water: exogenous, endoreic and ephemeral; the episodic role of water; sheet flooding, channel flash flooding.

3.1.2.3 Arid landscape development in contrasting settings

Origin and development of landforms of mid and low latitude deserts: aeolian – deflation hollows, desert pavements, ventifacts, yardangs, zeugen, barchans and sief dunes; water – wadis, bahadas, pediments, playas, inselbergs.

The relationship between process, time, landforms and landscapes in mid and low latitude desert settings: characteristic desert landscapes.

3.1.2.4 Desertification

The changing extent and distribution of hot deserts over the last 10,000 years. The causes of desertification – climate change and human impact; distribution of areas at risk; impact on ecosystems, landscapes and populations. Predicted climate change and its impacts; alternative possible futures for local populations.

3.1.2.5 Quantitative and qualitative skills

Students must engage with a range of quantitative and relevant qualitative skills, within the theme landscape systems. These should include observation skills, measurement and geospatial mapping skills and data manipulation and statistical skills applied to field measurements.

3.1.2.6 Case studies

Case study of a hot desert environment setting to illustrate and analyse key themes set out above and engage with field data (exemplifying field data may be gathered in settings that experience some of the aeolian processes associated with mid and low latitude desert environments such as coastal dunes).

Case study at a local scale of a landscape where desertification has occurred to illustrate and analyse key themes of desertification, causes and impacts, implications for sustainable development. Evaluation of human responses of resilience, mitigation and adaptation.

3.1.3 Coastal systems and landscapes

This section of our specification focuses on coastal zones, which are dynamic environments in which landscapes develop by the interaction of winds, waves, currents and terrestrial and marine sediments. The operation and outcomes of fundamental geomorphological processes and their association with distinctive landscapes are readily observable. In common with water and carbon cycles, a systems approach to study is specified.

Student engagement with subject content fosters an informed appreciation of the beauty and diversity of coasts and their importance as human habitats. The section offers the opportunity to exercise and develop observation skills, measurement and geospatial mapping skills, together with data manipulation and statistical skills, including those associated with and arising from fieldwork.

3.1.3.1 Coasts as natural systems

Systems in physical geography: systems concepts and their application to the development of coastal landscapes – inputs, outputs, energy, stores/components, flows/transfers, positive/negative feedback, dynamic equilibrium. The concepts of landform and landscape and how related landforms combine to form characteristic landscapes.

3.1.3.2 Systems and processes

Sources of energy in coastal environments: winds, waves (constructive and destructive), currents and tides. Low energy and high energy coasts.

Sediment sources, cells and budgets.

Geomorphological processes: weathering, mass movement, erosion, transportation and deposition.

Distinctively coastal processes: marine: erosion – hydraulic action, wave quarrying, corrasion/abrasion, cavitation, solution, attrition; transportation: traction, suspension (longshore/littoral drift) and deposition; sub-aerial weathering, mass movement and runoff.

3.1.3.3 Coastal landscape development

This content must include study of a variety of landscapes from beyond the United Kingdom (UK) but may also include UK examples.

Origin and development of landforms and landscapes of coastal erosion: cliffs and wave cut platforms, cliff profile features including caves, arches and stacks; factors and processes in their development.

Origin and development of landforms and landscapes of coastal deposition. Beaches, simple and compound spits, tombolos, offshore bars, barrier beaches and islands and sand dunes; factors and processes in their development.

Estuarine mudflat/saltmarsh environments and associated landscapes; factors and processes in their development.

Eustatic, isostatic and tectonic sea level change: major changes in sea level in the last 10,000 years.

Coastlines of emergence and submergence. Origin and development of associated landforms: raised beaches, marine platforms; rias, fjords, Dalmatian coasts.

Recent and predicted climatic change and potential impact on coasts.

The relationship between process, time, landforms and landscapes in coastal settings.

3.1.3.4 Coastal management

Human intervention in coastal landscapes. Traditional approaches to coastal flood and erosion risk: hard and soft engineering. Sustainable approaches to coastal flood risk and coastal erosion management: shoreline management/integrated coastal zone management.

3.1.3.5 Quantitative and qualitative skills

Students must engage with a range of quantitative and relevant qualitative skills, within the theme landscape systems. These should include observation skills, measurement and geospatial mapping skills and data manipulation and statistical skills applied to field measurements.

3.1.3.6 Case studies

Case study(ies) of coastal environment(s) at a local scale to illustrate and analyse fundamental coastal processes, their landscape outcomes as set out above and engage with field data and challenges represented in their sustainable management.

Case study of a contrasting coastal landscape beyond the UK to illustrate and analyse how it presents risks and opportunities for human occupation and development and evaluate human responses of resilience, mitigation and adaptation.

3.1.4 Glacial systems and landscapes

This section of our specification focuses on glaciated landscapes. These are dynamic environments in which landscapes continue to develop through contemporary processes but which mainly reflect former climatic conditions associated with the Pleistocene era. The operation and outcomes of fundamental geomorphological processes and their association with distinctive landscapes are readily observable. In common with water and carbon cycles, a systems approach to study is specified.

Student engagement with subject content fosters an informed appreciation of the beauty and diversity of glaciated regions and the challenges they present for human habitation. The section offers the opportunity to exercise and develop observation skills, measurement and geospatial mapping skills, together with data manipulation and statistical skills, including those associated with and arising from fieldwork.

3.1.4.1 Glaciers as natural systems

Systems in physical geography: systems concepts and their application to the development of glaciated landscapes – inputs, outputs, energy, stores/components, flows/transfers, positive/negative feedback, dynamic equilibrium. The concepts of landform and landscape and how related landforms combine to form characteristic landscapes.

3.1.4.2 The nature and distribution of cold environments

The global distribution of cold environments.

Physical characteristics of cold environments. Climate, soils and vegetation (and their interaction).

The global distribution of past and present cold environments (polar, alpine, glacial and periglacial) and of areas affected by the Pleistocene glaciations.

3.1.4.3 Systems and processes

Glacial systems including glacial budgets.

Ablation and accumulation – historical patterns of ice advance and retreat.

Warm and cold based glaciers: characteristics and development.

Geomorphological processes – weathering: frost action, nivation; ice movement: internal deformation, rotational, compressional, extensional and basal sliding; erosion: plucking, abrasion; transportation and deposition.

Fluvioglacial processes: meltwater, erosion transportation and deposition.

Periglacial features and processes: permafrost, active layer and mass movement.

3.1.4.4 Glaciated landscape development

This content must include study of a variety of landscapes from beyond the UK and may also include UK examples.

Origin and development of glaciated landscapes.

Erosional and depositional landforms: corries, arêtes, glacial troughs, hanging valleys, truncated spurs, roches moutonnées. Characteristic glaciated landscapes.

Origin and development of landforms and landscapes of glacial deposition: drumlins, erratics, moraines, till plains. Characteristic glaciated landscapes.

Fluvioglacial landforms of erosion and deposition: meltwater channels, kames, eskers, outwash plains. Characteristic fluvioglacial landscapes.

Periglacial landforms: patterned ground, ice wedges, pingos, blockfields, solifluction, lobes, terracettes, thermokarst. Characteristic periglacial landscapes.

The relationship between process, time, landforms and landscapes in glaciated settings: characteristic glaciated and periglacial landscapes.

3.1.4.5 Human impacts on cold environments

Concept of environmental fragility. Human impacts on fragile cold environments over time and at a variety of scales. Recent and prospective impact of climate change. Management of cold environments at present and in alternative possible futures.

3.1.4.6 Quantitative and qualitative skills

Students must engage with a range of quantitative and relevant qualitative skills, within the theme landscape systems. These should include observation skills, measurement and geospatial mapping skills and data manipulation and statistical skills applied to field measurements.

3.1.4.7 Case studies

Case study(ies) of glaciated environment(s) at a local scale to illustrate and analyse fundamental glacial processes, their landscape outcomes as set out above and engage with field data.

Case study of a contrasting glaciated landscape from beyond the UK to illustrate and analyse how it presents challenges and opportunities for human occupation and development and evaluate human responses of resilience, mitigation and adaptation.

3.1.5 Hazards

This optional section of our specification focuses on the lithosphere and the atmosphere, which intermittently but regularly present natural hazards to human populations, often in dramatic and sometimes catastrophic fashion. By exploring the origin and nature of these hazards and the various ways in which people respond to them, students are able to engage with many dimensions of the relationships between people and the environments they occupy. Study of this section offers the opportunity to exercise and develop observation skills, measurement and geospatial mapping skills, together with data manipulation and statistical skills, including those associated with and arising from fieldwork.

3.1.5.1 The concept of hazard in a geographical context

Nature, forms and potential impacts of natural hazards (geophysical, atmospheric and hydrological). Hazard perception and its economic and cultural determinants. Characteristic human responses – fatalism, prediction, adjustment/adaptation, mitigation, management, risk sharing – and their relationship to hazard incidence, intensity, magnitude, distribution and level of development. The Park model of human response to hazards. The Hazard Management Cycle.

3.1.5.2 Plate tectonics

Earth structure and internal energy sources. Plate tectonic theory of crustal evolution: tectonic plates; plate movement; gravitational sliding; ridge push, slab pull; convection currents and sea-floor spreading.

Destructive, constructive and conservative plate margins. Characteristic processes: seismicity and vulcanicity. Associated landforms: young fold mountains, rift valleys, ocean ridges, deep sea trenches and island arcs, volcanoes.

Magma plumes and their relationship to plate movement.

3.1.5.3 Volcanic hazards

The nature of vulcanicity and its relation to plate tectonics: forms of volcanic hazard: nuées ardentes, lava flows, mudflows, pyroclastic and ash fallout, gases/acid rain, tephra. Spatial distribution, magnitude, frequency, regularity and predictability of hazard events.

Impacts: primary/secondary, environmental, social, economic, political. Short and long-term responses: risk management designed to reduce the impacts of the hazard through preparedness, mitigation, prevention and adaptation.

Impacts and human responses as evidenced by a recent volcanic event.

3.1.5.4 Seismic hazards

The nature of seismicity and its relation to plate tectonics: forms of seismic hazard: earthquakes, shockwaves, tsunamis, liquefaction, landslides. Spatial distribution, randomness, magnitude, frequency, regularity, predictability of hazard events.

Impacts: primary/secondary; environmental, social, economic, political. Short and long-term responses; risk management designed to reduce the impacts of the hazard through preparedness, mitigation, prevention and adaptation.

Impacts and human responses as evidenced by a recent seismic event.

3.1.5.5 Storm hazards

The nature of tropical storms and their underlying causes. Forms of storm hazard: high winds, storm surges, coastal flooding, river flooding and landslides. Spatial distribution, magnitude, frequency, regularity, predictability of hazard events.

Impacts: primary/secondary, environmental, social, economic, political. Short and long-term responses: risk management designed to reduce the impacts of the hazard through preparedness, mitigation, prevention and adaptation.

Impacts and human responses as evidenced by two recent tropical storms in contrasting areas of the world.

3.1.5.6 Fires in nature

Nature of wildfires. Conditions favouring intense wild fires: vegetation type, fuel characteristics, climate and recent weather and fire behaviour. Causes of fires: natural and human agency. Impacts: primary/secondary, environmental, social, economic, political. Short and long-term responses; risk management designed to reduce the impacts of the hazard through preparedness, mitigation, prevention and adaptation.

Impact and human responses as evidenced by a recent wild fire event.

3.1.5.7 Case studies

Case study of a multi-hazardous environment beyond the UK to illustrate and analyse the nature of the hazards and the social, economic and environmental risks presented, and how human qualities and responses such as resilience, adaptation, mitigation and management contribute to its continuing human occupation.

Case study at a local scale of a specified place in a hazardous setting to illustrate the physical nature of the hazard and analyse how the economic, social and political character of its community reflects the presence and impacts of the hazard and the community’s response to the risk.

3.1.6 Ecosystems under stress

This optional section of our specification focuses on the biosphere and in particular the nature and functioning of ecosystems and their relationships to the nature and intensity of human activities. Study of the impact of population growth and economic development on ecosystems at various scales affords the opportunity for students to engage with fundamental contemporary people–environment issues including those relating to biodiversity and sustainability. Study of this section offers the opportunity to exercise and develop observation skills, measurement and geospatial mapping skills, together with data manipulation and statistical skills including those associated with and arising from fieldwork.

3.1.6.1 Ecosystems and sustainability

The concept of biodiversity. Local and global trends in biodiversity. Causes, rates and potential impacts of declining biodiversity.

Ecosystems and their importance for human populations in the light of continuing population growth and economic development. Human populations in ecosystem development and sustainability.

3.1.6.2 Ecosystems and processes

Nature of ecosystems – their structure, energy flows, trophic levels, food chains and food webs.

Application of systems concepts to ecosystems – inputs, outputs, stores and transfers of energy and materials. Concepts of biomass and net primary production.

Concepts of succession: seral stages, climatic climax, sub-climax and plagioclimax.

Mineral nutrient cycling.

Nature of terrestrial ecosystems and the inter-connections between climate, vegetation, soil and topography which produce them. Ecosystem responses to changes in one or more of their components or environmental controls.

Factors influencing the changing of ecosystems, including climate change and human exploitation of the global environment.

3.1.6.3 Biomes

The concept of the biome. The global distribution of major terrestrial biomes.

The nature of two contrasting biomes: tropical rainforest and savanna grassland to include:

  • the main characteristics of each biome
  • ecological responses to the climate, soil and soil moisture budget – adaptations by flora and fauna
  • human activity and its impact on each biome
  • typical development issues in each biome to include changes in population, economic development, agricultural extension and intensification, implications for biodiversity and sustainability.

3.1.6.4 Ecosystems in the British Isles over time

Succession and climatic climax as illustrated by lithoseres and hydroseres.

The characteristics of the climatic climax: temperate deciduous woodland biome.

The effects of human activity on succession – illustrated by one plagioclimax such as a heather moorland.

3.1.6.5 Marine ecosystems

The distribution and main characteristics of coral reef ecosystems. Environmental conditions associated with reef development.

The following aspects should be examined with reference to a named, located coral reef:

Factors in the health and survival of reefs:

  • Natural: Water temperature, acidity, salinity, algal blooms.
  • Human activity and its impact: Major drainage basin schemes, onshore development, desalination, pollution, tourism, fishing.
  • Future prospects for coral reefs.

3.1.6.6 Local ecosystems

The main characteristics of a distinctive local ecosystem (such as an area of heathland, managed parkland, pond, dune system). Ecological responses to the climate, soil and soil moisture budget – adaptations by flora and fauna.

Local factors in ecological development and change (such as agriculture, urban change, the planned and unplanned introduction of new species).

The impacts of change and measures to manage these impacts. Conservation strategies and their implementation in specific settings.

3.1.6.7 Case studies

Case study of a specified region experiencing ecological change to illustrate and analyse the nature of the change and the reasons for it, how the economic, social and political character of its community reflects its ecological setting and how the community is responding to change.

Case study of a specified ecosystem at a local scale to illustrate and analyse key themes set out above, including the nature and properties of the ecosystem, human impact upon it and the challenges and opportunities presented in its sustainable development.