Unit 0: Introduction: Geography and it tools. Climate and landscapes

In this unit you will remember about the elements of a map: latitude, longitude, the hemispheres, directions, time zone, scale, and map legends. And recall the different types of maps: topographic map, thematic map and how to do a profile of relief and a climate graph.

What is geography

Geography is the science in charge of studying the Earth, describing territories and the processes behind their creation. There are two main branches in Geography:

  • Physical Geography: study of processes and patterns in the natural environment. It can be divided into Biogeography, Climatology, Environmental management, Geomorphology, Hydrology, Landscape ecology, Oceanography, etc.
  • Human Geography: it deals the study of people and their communities, cultures, economies and interactions with the environment by studying their relations with and across space and place. Here, we can study the demographics, cultures, urbanism, geopolitics, societies, economic activities, etc.

The purpose of Geography is to identify, contextualize, describe, explain and relate the different facts and phenomena that are associated with territories. In this course, we are going to work with the concept of ‘landscape’, which is understood as all the visible features of an area of land resulting from the interaction of the natural environment and the human activity. Landscapes are composed of the following elements which condition each other:

  • Natural environment: natural and anthropic elements (relief, soil, climate, hydrography, biosphere, etc.).
  • Historical human activity: the mark left by previous generations of human activity on the landscape. These are complex processes which, among other things, may modify the fauna and flora of an area (by introduction or extermination of species), extinguish resources and create infrastructures.
  • Current human activity: all human activities leave their traces in the natural environment. For the extraction of raw materials (wood, minerals, water, etc), the occupation of territories, the creation of infrastructures, etc. Therefore, the balance between the use and exploitation of the environment and the development of contemporary societies is of the uttermost importance, and problems such as overexploitation of resources, desertification, global warming and pollution are increasingly present.

1. The Earth’s relief: continents and islands 

The relief is formed by the shapes of the Earth’s surface. They form continents and islands. 

The continents are large masses of land surrounded by seas and oceans. From largest to smallest, the continents are: Asia, America (North and South America), Africa, Antarctica, Europe and Oceania. Islands are masses of land surrounded by water. Some islands form groups called archipelagos, like the Canaries or the islands of Japan. 

2. The Earth’s relief forms 

The forms of continental relief are plains, plateaus, mountains and depressions. 

  • Plain: flat or gently rolling extension of land at an altitude less than 200 m. 
  • Plateau: a raised plain at an altitude of over 200 m. 
  • Mountain: elevation of the terrain with steep slopes and an altitude greater than 600 m. 
  • Depression: sunken area of the Earth’s crust. The forms of coastal relief are capes, gulfs, peninsulas, isthmus and deltas. 
  • Cape: part of the coast which extends into the sea. 
  • Gulf: entry of the sea into the coast. 
  • Peninsula: fragment of land surrounded by water on all sides except one. 
  • Isthmus: piece of land which joins two continents or a peninsula to the continent. 
  • Delta: coastal area formed by the accumulation of the sediments of a river at its mouth. 

3. The hydrosphere: water on Earth 

Seawater, which is salty, can be found in oceans and seas

Oceans are large accumulations of salt water that fill the depressions with the Earth’s crust. There are five oceans: Pacific, Atlantic, Indian, Arctic and Antarctic. 

Seas are part of the oceans that are near to the coasts. Some of the most important seas are: in America, the Caribbean Sea; in Asia, the Arabian and the Red Sea; in Europe, the North and the Mediterranean Sea; in Oceania, the Tasman Sea.

Continental waters are not salty, they are fresh. On the Earth’s surface they can be found in lakes, glaciers and rivers:

  • A lake is a body of water contained in a depressed area. 
  • A glacier is a body of ice that flows. 
  • A river is a course of water that flows naturally. 

4. Relief, waters and coasts of the world 

America is divided into two zones: North America and South America, connected by the isthmus of Central America. America has an elongated shape. It extends from the Northern Hemisphere to the Southern Hemisphere, and this causes enormous contrasts: icy regions, high mountains, deserts… From North to South it is crossed by a huge mountainous axis: the Rocky Mountains to the North and the Andes mountain range to the South. Great plains stretch to the East of these mountains. The American rivers are long and plentiful, such as the Mississippi, to the North, and the Amazonas, to the South. The Great Lakes in North America are also highlighted. North America’s coasts are very cut, mainly in the Arctic region. North America has many large peninsulas, like Alaska and Labrador, and the island of Greenland. In the Caribbean, in Central America, the archipelagos of the West Indies are located. They have very soft coasts. 

Asia is the largest and most diverse continent, with enormous contrasts: the highest mountains of the Earth (as the Everest) and the deeper depressions (such as the Dead Sea). There are great plains (Siberia), inland seas (Black, Caspian) and long rivers (Indus, Ganges, Yangtze), that run from the centre of the continent towards the periphery. There are also in Asia several large peninsulas (Arabia, the Hindustan, Indochina), and many islands located in the eastern part of the continent (Malay Archipelago). 

Africa has a uniform relief, formed by huge plateaus, great interior depressions and few mountains. The Sahara, the largest desert in the world, is highlighted, and also the Great Rift Valley. In Africa there are several plentiful rivers, such as the Nile, the longest in the world. It rises in the region of the Great Lakes. Other rivers, like Niger and Congo, cross large depressions. Coasts are regular, without great peninsulas and no islands, except Madagascar. 

Oceania is an insular continent formed by several large islands, such as Australia (the Earth’s largest island), New Guinea, New Zealand and Tasmania, and the archipelagos of the Micronesia, Polynesia and the Melanesia. The numerous islands of Oceania are spread over the Pacific Ocean, and they are from volcanic and coral origin. The few existing rivers are located mainly in Australia. 

Antarctica is located in the Antarctic Polar circle, and with 14 million km2, it is completely covered with a mass of ice. It presents a very homogeneous aspect: a high circular-shaped plateau that houses a desert of ice. The continent has an average altitude of 2000 m, and its coasts are in general very cutEurope is one of the continents with a lower average altitude (over 340 meters). There are not so high mountain ranges and large planes predominate. Three great relief units can be found in

Europe: the old massifs (as the French Massif Central), the Great European Plain and the young mountain ranges (as the Alps and the Pyrenees). Rivers in Europe are mainly short and not very plentiful. They flow into four sea outlets: Arctic, Atlantic, Mediterranean and Eastern. Lakes are mostly small. European coasts are very cut and there are many gulfs, bays and peninsulas (as the Balcanic, Scandinavian and Iberian). The coast is washed by the Atlantic Ocean, the Mediterranean Sea and the Black Sea. In the European littoral there are many islands. The biggest ones are located in the Atlantic Ocean (as Iceland and British Islands); on the contrary, islands in the Mediterranean Sea are smaller, as Sicily, Sardinia, Crete and the Balearic Islands.

Spain’s relief, coasts and rivers

The Iberian Peninsula is located in the temperate zone of the North hemisphere, between Europe and Africa. The relief is very varied, with high mountain ranges, eroded massifs and large plains. The Peninsula has a high average altitude (over 660 metres).

The main units of the Peninsular relief are: the Meseta (Plateau), the inner mountain ranges, the peripheral reliefs, the reliefs away from the Meseta, and the depressions. 

The Balearic Islands are located in the Mediterranean Sea and the Canary Islands are located in the Atlantic Ocean, and they have a volcanic origin. 

The Peninsula’s rivers are grouped into three categories, depending on the sea or ocean outlet they flow into. 

  • Cantabrian rivers are short and plentiful with a regular flow; they descend steeply. These include the Nalon, the Nervion and the Bidasoa.
  • Atlantic rivers are long and plentiful with an irregular flow; they flow through broad plains. Major Atlantic rivers include the Duero, the Tajo, the Guadiana and the Guadalquivir river. 
  • Mediterranean rivers are short (except for the Ebro), with an irregular flow, and they carry small volumes of water. Important examples include the Ebro, the Turia, the Jucar, and the Segura. 

Climates and landscapes


The climate is the average state of the atmosphere in a given place. It is measured through a number of elements, namely, temperature, precipitation, atmospheric pressure and wind. These elements are determined by a number of factors, namely, latitude, altitude and distance from the sea

The climates in each zone affect the vegetation, temperature and human activity in the area. There are three subtypes of climate on Earth: warm, temperate and cold

Warm climates

Are located between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn. Their average temperature is above 20º.

  • Equatorial Climate: There is no seasonality: Very high precipitation (over 1500-2000 mm per year) and temperatures throughout the year. Near the Equator. Vegetation: jungle.
  • Tropical climate: Very high temperatures all year long, but two seasons: one dry (summer) and one wet (winter). Precipitation: 750-1500 mm per year. Surrounding the Equatorial climate. Vegetation: tropical forests in humid areas and savannah (grasslands) in drier areas.
  • Hot desert climate: around the Tropics. High average temperatures, but sharp differences between day and night. Very scarce precipitation (less than 150 mm). Vegetation: sparse, mostly cactuses and bushes with capacity for storing water inside and spines outside.

Are located between the Tropics and the Polar circles (30º-60º North and South). Average temperatures between 0º and 20º.

  • Oceanic Climate: There is seasonality, with important differences between summer and winter. Are located between 45º and 65º of latitude, on the coasts of continents. Mild temperatures because of the influence of the sea. Not very cold winters (not below -3º C) and cool summers. Abundant and regular precipitation (around 800 mm a year). Vegetation: deciduous forest (oak, beech), heathland and shrubs and meadows.
  • Mediterranean climate: between 30º and 45º. Warm summers and cool winters, with no great variation of temperatures. Moderate and irregular precipitation (300-800 mm), with a very dry summer and torrential storms in spring and autumn (DANA). Vegetation: mostly evergreen forests (cork and pine) and bushes (rock rose, thyme and rosemary).
  • Continental Climate: in the interior of the continents in the Northern Hemisphere. Temperatures vary greatly, with very cold winters (below -3º C) and warm summers. Precipitations are moderate (300-800 mm), and fall mostly in the summer. During the winter there are intense cold spells with snow. The vegetation depends on the latitude: in the southern parts prairies of high grasses and steppes are found, while the northern areas are covered by the taiga of conifer forests (pines and firs).
  • Polar climates: Between the polar circles and the poles. Temperatures are very low, never over 10º. Precipitations are scarce (less than 250-300 mm), and mostly in the form of snow, so they are considered cold or frozen deserts. There is little vegetation, mostly Arctic prairie in the tundra with small evergreen plants (Mosses, lichens, etc.) and nothing in the ice sheets.
  • High Mountain Climate : It can be found in any latitude, since it depends on the altitude. Therefore, it requires altitudes where the average temperature is 10º C or less, generally with very cold winters (0º) and cool summers. Precipitation is abundant (over 1000 mm), with snow in the winter. The vegetation depends on the altitude: first forest, then brushes, meadows, mosses and lichens, and last permanent snow and rocks.

Europe is in the northern temperate zone and has a wide variety of climates and landscapes.


Spain, in general, has a Mediterranean climate that is warm and dry. However, there are three types of temperate climates on the Iberian Peninsula and another in the mountains. Vegetation is, therefore, very diverse.

On the Iberian Peninsula, there are three different temperate climates and a mountain climate. The climates are different to those in the rest of Europe because of: 

  • Geographical location. The Peninsula is in the south of the Northern Hemisphere and is closer to the tropical zone.
  • The influence of the sea and the mountains. The sea creates a mild climate on the Peninsula. However, the mountains prevent the sea from influencing inland areas.  
  • Altitude. The average altitude of the Peninsula is high.

Spain’s oceanic climate is mild and humid. It is warmer than more northern areas of Europe.n  

The Mediterranean climate has mild temperatures in winter and high temperatures in summer. There is not much rainfall, except in spring and autumn.

The interior of the Peninsula has a mainly Mediterranean climate. However, it also has continental features, such as cold winters.

The Canary Islands have a subtropical climate with high temperatures and scarce, irregular rain-fall.

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