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Physical Environment

As humans, we use the resources from the physical environment to meet our needs. We have the capacity to pollute the physical environment (air, water and land), causing climate change through our greenhouse gas emissions. 

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Physical Environment

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As humans, we use the resources from the physical environment to meet our needs. We have the capacity to pollute the physical environment (air, water and land), causing climate change through our greenhouse gas emissions.

The physical environment is important because it supports human life and all other life forms. It provides resources that humans need to survive, such as air, water, food, and shelter. It also regulates the global climate and natural cycles. These include the water cycle and the carbon cycle.

Physical Environment: Definition

The physical environment can be defined as a dynamic system of constantly changing and evolving geographical factors that affect the planetary food supplies and availability, temperature, etc.

This means that the physical environment is always in a state of flux, and that there is never a moment when it is completely static.

Natural disasters such as floods and earthquakes can cause changes in the landscape, which can then impact the way that plants and animals interact with their surroundings.

Intense seismic events that create surface ruptures may disturb ecological communities such as alpine grasslands, and make them less productive along the surface rupture line.

Similarly, human activity can also affect the physical environment.

Deforestation can alter microclimates (the local climates), while pollution can contaminate water supplies. The fragmentation of natural environments can lead to inbreeding between members of a species that cannot travel from one habitat to another without high risks.

Physical Environment: Examples

The physical environment refers to the abiotic, meaning the non-living elements. On Earth, this abiotic component is interlinked and inseparable from the biotic elements. Examples of the physical environment include:

  • Tectonic plates

  • Cyclones

  • Forests

  • Water droplets

  • Sounds

All these elements are important to the functioning of the physical environment. Humans have to sometimes take additional steps to modify the environment and ensure a steady flow of resources and enhance their quality of life.

Living with the Physical Environment

Living with the physical environment means interacting with Earth's "spheres", and doing so sustainably. The spheres are:

Living with the atmosphere means understanding that we live in the Tropospheric layer, fly in the Stratosphere and go through the exosphere to reach space. It means understanding how gases, electromagnetic radiation, suspended particles, etc. work and interact with us and with each other.

  • The Lithosphere: the crust and upper mantle, thus, the rocky layer of the planet.

Living with the lithosphere means understanding it is an important growth environment for organisms, a source of minerals, a carbon sink, and an element maintaining the molten core which regulates the magnetic field and Earth's temperature.

  • The Hydrosphere: the water present on our planet in all its forms, including the Cryosphere.

Living with the hydrosphere means understanding its importance as a water source, and as a place where life first evolved, brimming with dissolved gases that maintain global temperatures and other processes stable.

  • The Biosphere: all living organisms.

Living with the biosphere means understanding it is the biotic element of Earth, that constantly interacts with the abiotic and provides ecosystem services such as water filtration and food supply.

Natural Hazards

Natural hazards are extreme natural events that can cause loss of life, damage to the environment, or impact the human social and economic spheres. These natural events include snow, avalanches, erosion, landslides, tectonism, volcanism, atmospheric, technological and man-made explosions, etc.

Key Hazards and their Meaning

Living with the Physical Environment's HazardsDescription
EarthquakeDefinition: naturally occurring phenomenon wherein the earth's crustal plates move against each other or apart, causing the release of energy in the form of seismic waves.Causes: tectonic activity (proximity to plate boundaries), volcanic eruptions, landslides, asteroids or hydraulic fracturing. Factors: earthquakes can vary greatly in terms of their intensity. The exact effects of an earthquake depend on a number of factors, including its magnitude, depth, and local geology. They are associated with convergent or conservative boundaries. Example: the world's largest recorded earthquake was in a subduction zone (convergent), in Valdivia, 1960, Chile, 9.5 on the Richter scale.
VolcanismDefinition: a geological process that results in the eruption of volcanoes. Volcanism occurs when molten rock, ash, and gas escape from the Earth's surface. This can happen through several processes, including magma eruption, pyroclastic flow, and lahars. Causes: magma buoyancy, pressure from magmatic gases or new magma injection due to tectonic pressure.Factors: proximity to plate boundaries - constructive (divergent, separating), destructive (convergent, subduction) or transforming (conservative - moving past).Example: The most active volcanoes are found in the "Ring of Fire," a horseshoe-shaped region that encircles the Pacific Ocean. In this region, the Nazca Plate is being subducted beneath the South American Plate, causing volcanism in Chile, Argentina, and Peru.
TsunamiDefinition: seismic sea waves that appear as secondary hazards to primary hazards, such as volcanism or earthquakes. They grow bigger as they approach the shores, but in the open ocean, they can start from less than 30 cm in height.Causes: tectonic, volcanic, landslides, asteroids or atomic bombsFactors: most common tsunami waves are created when an earthquake causes the seafloor to rise or fall rapidly. This displaces a large volume of water, which then rushes towards the shore. Tsunami waves can reach heights of over 30 meters (100 feet) and travel at speeds of up to 800 kilometres per hour (500 miles per hour).Example: A small tsunami wave, 1.2 m tall, was reported by the Japan Meteorological Agency in 2021 after a volcanic eruption on the island of Tonga.
AvalancheDefinition: An avalanche is a rapid flow of snow down a hill or mountainCauses: typically triggered by the collapse of a cornice, weak snow layer or by a vibration such as that caused by a loud noise. Avalanches are most common during winter and spring, but they can occur at any time of year if the conditions are right. They can occur in any mountainous region where there is sufficient snow cover. Most avalanches occur spontaneously, but they can also be deliberately triggered by people using explosives.Factors: volume of snow involved, the angle of the slope, type of terrain, wind direction, deforestation, rain, temperature.Example: The Galtür resort avalanche in Austria, 23 February 1999, travelled at 200 mph and took only 50 seconds to reach the village, causing severe economic and life losses.

Other Hazards

High winds, ice storms, heavy rain, thunderstorms, and lightning all become hazards depending on intensity. They can be brought by tornadoes, cyclones, anticyclones and hurricanes.

An anti-cyclone would bring heat waves and dryness in the UK.

Summary of Hazard Effects

  • Social & health: stress, destroyed buildings, loss of livelihoods, interrupted communication links

  • Technological: technological advancements in defending against hazards and in detection strategies

  • Economic: damaged fuel stations, leisure and tourism disruption,

  • Positive environmental effects: provision of rain and moisture to dry areas; creation of primary habitats; provision of heat to cold areas.

  • Negative environmental effects: habitat flooding, saltwater and new pathogen infiltration, endemic animal and plant death, sewage leaks, environmental pollution.

Physical Environment Factors

The physical environment is influenced by all the processes that take place within and outside it, including:

Hazards: water outburst flows in tectonic basins, e.g. the Black Sea deluge theory.

Earth's orbit and tilt: orbital eccentricity may have contributed to the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum.

Ocean currents: slower ocean currents increase CO2 absorption capabilities by the ocean and therefore influence glacier formation.

Anthropogenic activities: the straightening of the Rhine or of the Danube arms towards their Deltas.

Biota death: chalky limestone coasts, formed from the shells of dead marine organisms like foraminifera.

The Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum is a 100,000-year interval event of Earth's prehistory when temperatures suddenly reached high thresholds. It has been estimated that the water temperature in the Arctic might have reached 23 °C during this period.

Another key factor influencing the physical environment is climate change.

The Physical Environment and Climate Change

Key Concepts - Climate ChangeSpecifications
Anthropogenic Factors of Climate ChangeFossil fuel extraction and combustion, deforestation, agriculture, soil/habitat modification.
Natural Factors of Climate ChangeVolcanism, Tectonism, Orbital and tilt eccentricity, Stellar events (supernovae, solar intensity), Magnetic pole reversal (theory), El Niño effects.
Effects of Climate ChangeSea level rise, melting permafrost, reduced snowfall, ocean acidification, eutrophication, desertification, extreme weather event incidence, chemical solubility rates, atmospheric gas concentrations, loss of specialist biodiversity, etc.
How to Identify the Factors of Climate ChangeIce core drilling, tree rings, historical pollen analysis, fossils, rocks and sediments, satellite spectroscopic analysis.
How to Manage Climate ChangeAdaptation: understanding and including in the learning curricula that the human population and its activities have deep, long-lasting impact on the planet; technological advancements in energy efficiency; barriers and new construction methods to account for sea level rise and floods, afforestation, etc.Mitigation: switching to novel (both renewable & sustainable) energy sources; properly managing and protecting key habitats; adopting relevant laws and regulations (e.g. The Forestry Stewardship Council)

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has found that in 2018, 89% of global CO2 emissions came from fossil fuels and industry.1

Difference between the Social and Physical Environment

The social environment influences climate change and the physical environment. A few ways include:

  • Flood hydrographs and drainage charts influenced by both anthropogenic and physical elements, e.g. snowmelt (natural) and water run-off from roofs or tarmac (man-made) OR better water storage capacity and distribution (rainwater collection tanks).
  • Tourism: footpath erosion, noise and air pollution, littering, wear and tear to geological formations, human-wildlife conflicts OR natural area enhancement, generation of livelihoods.
  • Coastline engineering for housing: barriers, offshore breakers, sand dunes/habitat creation, gabions, prevention of erosion techniques OR pollution, human-wildlife conflict, habitat destruction, explosions for tunnel creation and extraction industries.

The social and physical spheres and interconnected!

The social environment encompasses the immediate physical surroundings that have been modified by humans and in which anthropogenic activities and interactions occur, along their culturally motivated paths. This includes health services and economic processes.

Types of Physical Environments

Each physical environment has its own unique associated characteristics. They can be defined by their biotic and abiotic characteristics, as well as time and space.

  • Lochs: valleys created by glaciers, such as Loch Avon (Scotland).

  • Tropical rainforests: the Congolian Rainforest (Africa).

  • Polar regions: cold areas of the Earth due to the planet's tilt away from the Sun for up to 6 months of the year.

  • Deserts: e.g. Antarctica (the driest continent), Kalahari.

  • Human-made physical environments: streets and buildings.

  • Prehistoric natural environments: defined by the geological time in which they occurred, e.g. Permian forests on the Pangean continent.

British Physical Environments

The United Kingdom and its isles has unique physical environments and topography. This includes coastal, fluvial, glacial, karstic, uplands, etc. landscapes.

Key Physical Environments - a few examples


Coastal - oceanic landforms close to the land

Isles of Scilly Archipelago, Devon's Jurassic Coast: influenced by processes such as deposition, erosion, transportation, etc.

Fluvial - riverine landforms

River Severn: influenced by human activities (classified as in an "ecologically poor" condition).

Glacial - frozen landforms

Helvellyn mountain: one of the tallest in the UK, contains a number of glacial landforms, including corries and troughs.

Karstic - soluble rock landforms (caves, sinkholes, etc.)

Yorkshire Dales Caves and Karst

Physical Environment - Key takeaways

  • The physical environment prioritizes the abiotic elements of our environments such as the lithospheres with its rocks, sediments, etc. or the atmospheres and its air currents.
  • The physical environment is interlinked with the living environment.
  • Climate change influences the physical environment, but it can be both natural and anthropogenic.
  • Natural hazards influence the physical environment, but they can also be natural, positive, or anthropogenic.
  • There are significant ways in which the physical environment has been modified over the course of time, and it remains a dynamic system that is constantly being remodelled.


  1. Client Earth Communications, Fossil fuels and climate change: the facts, 2022. Accessed 12.06.22

Frequently Asked Questions about Physical Environment

The physical environment refers to the physical geographical and geological features on Earth. These include the atmosphere, biosphere and hydrosphere which are all abiotic factors interconnected with biotic factors.

An example of a physical environment is the Yorkshire Dales Karst landscape.

Three types of physical environment are tropical forests, deserts, and human-made landscapes.

Some physical factors in an environment are tectonic plates, cyclones, ice, ocean currents, the magnetic poles, rivers, etc.

The difference between the social and physical environment is that social spheres belong to the cultural anthropogenic branch of environmental studies whereas the physical environment can be non-anthropogenic and may consist of only abiotic elements.

Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

Is a rainforest a type of physical environment?

Is the physical environment dynamic or static?

What percentage of ODS did the Montreal Protocol eliminate from the atmosphere?


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