Viewed from far enough away to see an entire hemisphere, Earth is both beautiful and intriguing—a life-giving planetary oasis. From this perspective we can begin to appreciate “the big picture,” a global view of our planet’s physical geography through its display of environmental diversity. Characteristics of the oceans, the atmosphere, the landmasses, and evidence of life as revealed by vegetated regions, are apparent. Looking carefully, we can recognize geographic patterns, shaped by the processes that make our world dynamic and ever-changing. Except for the external addition of energy from the sun, our planet is a self-contained system that has all the requirements to sustain life.
Earth may seem immense and almost limitless from the perspective of humans living on its surface. In contrast, viewing the “big picture” reveals its conspicuous limits and fragility—a spherical island of life surrounded by the vast, dark emptiness of space. However, from our vantage point in space, we cannot comprehend the details of how processes involving air, water, land, and living things interact to create a diverse array of landscapes and environmental conditions on Earth. These distant images display the basic aspects of Earth that make our existence possible, but they only hint at the complexity of our planet. Being aware of “the big picture” is important, but this knowledge should be bolstered by a detailed understanding of how Earth’s features and processes interact to develop the extraordinary environmental diversity that exists on our planet. Developing this understanding is the goal of a course in physical geography.
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