1.2 Location and Regions on Earth

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When identifying a region or location on the earth, the first step is to understand its relative and absolute locations. Relative location is the location on the earth’s surface with reference to other places, taking into consideration features such as transportation access or terrain. Relative location helps one compare the advantages of one location with those of another. Absolute location, on the other hand, refers to an exact point on the earth’s surface without regard to how that point is related to any other place. Absolute location is vital to the cartographic process and to human activities that require an agreed-upon method of identifying a place or point.

The earth has 360 degrees, and they are measured using a grid pattern called the graticule. Lines of latitude and longitude allow any absolute location on the earth to have an identifiable address of degrees north or south and east or west, which allows geographers to accurately locate, measure, and study spatial activity.

Geographers and cartographers organize locations on the earth using a series of imaginary lines that encircle the globe. The two primary lines are the equator and the prime meridian. From these lines, the systems of longitude and latitude are formed, allowing users to locate themselves anywhere on the planet. The line is the longest when one travels along in an east-west direction. At the equator, the sun is directly overhead at noon on the two equinoxes, which occur in March and September.

Lines of Latitude

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The equator is the largest circle of latitude on Earth. The equator divides the earth into the Northern and Southern Hemispheres and is called 0 degrees latitude. The other lines of latitude are numbered from 0 to 90 degrees going toward each of the poles. The lines north of the equator toward the North Pole are north latitude, and each of the numbers is followed by the letter “N.” The lines south of the equator toward the South Pole are south latitude, and the letter “S follows each of the numbers.” The equator (0 latitude) is the only line of latitude without any letter following the number. Notice that all lines of latitude are parallel to the equator (they are often called parallels) and that the North Pole equals 90 degrees N, and the South Pole equals 90 degrees S. Noted parallels include both the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn, which are 23.5 degrees from the equator. At 66.5 degrees from the equator are the Arctic Circle and the Antarctic Circle near the North and South Pole, respectively.

Lines of Longitude and Meridians

The prime meridian sits at 0 degrees longitude and divides the earth into the Eastern and Western Hemispheres. The prime meridian is defined as an imaginary line that runs through the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, England, a suburb of London. The Eastern Hemisphere includes the continents of Europe, Asia, and Australia, while the Western Hemisphere includes North and South America. All meridians (lines of longitude) east of the prime meridian (0 and 180) are numbered from 1 to 180 degrees east (E); the lines west of the prime meridian (0 and 180) are numbered from 1 to 180 degrees west (W). The 0 and 180 lines do not have a letter attached to them. The meridian at 180 degrees is called the International Date Line. The International Date Line (180 degrees longitude) is opposite the prime meridian and indicates the start of each day (Monday, Tuesday, etc.). Each day officially starts at 12:01 a.m., at the International Date Line. Do not confuse the International Date Line with the prime meridian (0 longitude). The actual International Date Line does not follow the 180-degree meridian exactly. Several alterations have been made to the International Date Line to accommodate political agreements to include an island or country on one side of the line or another.

Climate and Latitude

The earth is tilted on its axis 23.5 degrees. As it rotates around the sun, the tilt of the earth’s axis provides different climatic seasons because of the variations in the angle of direct sunlight on the planet. Places receiving more direct sunlight experience a warmer climate. Elsewhere, the increased angle of incoming solar radiation near the earth’s poles results in more reflected sunlight and thus a colder climate. The Northern Hemisphere experiences winter when sunlight is reflected off the earth’s surface, and less of the sun’s energy is absorbed because of a sharper angle from the sun.

The Tropic of Cancer is the parallel at 23.5 degrees north of the equator, which is the most northerly place on Earth, receiving direct sunlight during the Northern Hemisphere’s summer. Remember that the earth is tilted 23.5 degrees, which accounts for seasonal variations in climate. The Tropic of Capricorn is the parallel at 23.5 degrees south of the equator and is the most southerly location on Earth, receiving direct sunlight during the Southern Hemisphere’s summer.

The tropics (Cancer and Capricorn) are the two imaginary lines directly above which the sun shines on the two solstices, which occur on or near June 20 or 21 (summer solstice in the Northern Hemisphere) and December 21 or 22 (winter solstice in the Northern Hemisphere). The sun is directly above the Tropic of Cancer at noon on June 20 or 21, marking the beginning of summer in the Northern Hemisphere and the beginning of winter in the Southern Hemisphere. The sun is directly above the Tropic of Capricorn at noon on December 21 or 22, marking the beginning of winter in the Northern Hemisphere and the beginning of summer in the Southern Hemisphere. Solstices are the extreme ends of the seasons, when the line of direct sunlight is either the farthest north or the farthest south that it ever goes. The region between the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn is known as the tropics. This area does not experience dramatic seasonal changes because the amount of direct sunlight received does not vary widely. The higher latitudes (north of the Tropic of Cancer and south of the Tropic of Capricorn) experience significant seasonal variation in climate.

The Arctic Circle is a line of latitude at 66.5 degrees north. It is the farthest point north that receives sunlight during its winter season (90 N − 23.5 = 66.5 N). During winter, the North Pole is away from the sun and does not receive much sunlight. At times, it is dark for most of the twenty-four-hour day. During the Northern Hemisphere’s summer, the North Pole faces more toward the sun and may receive sunlight for more extended portions of the 24-hour day. The Antarctic Circle is the corresponding line of latitude at 66.5 degrees south. It is the farthest location south that receives sunlight during the winter season in the Southern Hemisphere (90 S − 23.5 = 66.5 S). When it is winter in the north, it is summer in the south.

The Arctic and Antarctic Circles mark the extremities (southern and northern, respectively) of the polar day (twenty-four-hour sunlit day) and the polar night (24-hour sunless night). North of the Arctic Circle, the sun is above the horizon for twenty-four continuous hours at least once per year and below the horizon for twenty-four continuous hours at least once per year. This is true also near the Antarctic Circle, but it occurs south of the Antarctic Circle, toward the South Pole. Equinoxes, when the line of direct sunlight hits the equator and days and nights are of equal length, occur in the spring and fall on or around March 20 or 21 and September 22 or 23.

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Time Zones

imageUniversal Time (UT), Coordinated Universal Time (UTC), Greenwich Mean Time (GMT), or Zulu Time (Z): all four terms can be defined as the local time at 0 degrees longitude, which is the prime meridian (location of Greenwich, England). This is the same time under which many military operations, international radio broadcasts, and air traffic control systems operate worldwide. UTC is set in zero- to twenty-four-hour time periods, as opposed to two twelve-hour time periods (a.m. and p.m.). The designations of a.m. and p.m. are relative to the central meridian: a.m. refers to ante meridiem, or “before noon,” and p.m. refers to post meridiem, or “after-noon.” UT, UTC, GMT, and Z all refer to the same twenty-four-hour time system that assists in unifying a standard time regarding global operations. For example, all air flights use the twenty-four-hour time system so the pilots can coordinate flights across time zones and around the world.

The earth rotates on its axis once every twenty-four hours at the rate of 15 degrees per hour (15 × 24 = 360). Time zones are established roughly every 15 degrees longitude so that local times correspond to similar hours of day and night. With this system, the sun is generally overhead at noon in every time zone that follows the 15-degree-wide system. The twenty-four times zones are based on the prime meridian regarding Universal Coordinated Time (UTC), Greenwich Mean Time (GMT), or Zulu Time (Z), which all operate on the twenty-four-hour time clock. Local time zones are either plus or minus determined by the distance from the prime meridian.

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A problem with the 15-degree time zones is that the zones do not necessarily follow state, regional, or local boundaries. The result is that time zones are seldom precisely 15 degrees wide and usually have various boundary lines. In the United States, the boundaries between the different time zones are inconsistent with the lines of longitude; in some cases, time zones zigzag to follow state lines or to keep cities within a single time zone. Other countries address the problem differently. China, for example, is as large in land area as the United States yet operates on only one-time zone for the entire country.

Regions in Geography

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A region is a basic unit of study in geography – a unit of space characterized by a feature such as a common government, language, political situation, or landform. A region can be a formal country governed by political boundaries, such as France or Canada; a region can be defined by a landform, such as the drainage basin of all the water that flows into the Mississippi River; and a region can even be defined by the area served by a shopping mall. Cultural regions can be defined by similarities in human activities, traditions, or cultural attributes. Geographers use the regional unit to map features of particular interest, and data can be compared between regions to help understand trends, identify patterns, or assist in explaining a particular phenomenon.

Regions are traditionally defined by inherent characteristics that provide a sense of place. Their boundaries vary with the type of region, whether it is formal, functional, or vernacular; each type has its own meaning and defined purpose. A formal region has a governmental, administrative, or political boundary and can have political as well as geographic boundaries that are not open to dispute or debate. Formal boundaries can separate states, provinces, or countries from one another. Physical regions can be included within formal boundaries, such as the Rocky Mountains or New England. An official boundary, such as the boundary of a national park, can be considered a formal boundary. School districts, cities, and county governments have formal boundaries.

Natural physical geographic features have a significant influence on where the political boundaries of formal regions are set. If we look at a world map, we will recognize that many political boundaries are natural features, such as rivers, mountain ranges, and large lakes. For example, between the United States and Mexico, the Rio Grande makes up a portion of the border. Likewise, between Canada and the United States, a significant part of the eastern border is along the Saint Lawrence Seaway and the Great Lakes. Alpine mountain ranges in Europe create borders, such as the boundary between Switzerland and Italy.

While geographic features can serve as convenient formal borders, political disputes will often flare up in adjacent areas, mainly if valuable natural or cultural resources are found within the geographic features. Oil drilling near the coast of a sovereign country, for example, can cause a dispute between countries about which one has dominion over the oil resources. The exploitation of offshore fisheries can also be disputed.

Functional regions have boundaries related to a practical function within a given area. When the function of an area ends, the functional region ends, and its boundaries cease to exist. For example, a functional region can be defined by a newspaper service or delivery area. If the newspaper goes bankrupt, the functional region no longer exists. Church parishes, shopping malls, and business service areas are other examples of functional regions. They function to serve a region and may have established boundaries for limits of the area to which they will provide service. An example of a common service area – that is, a functional region – is the region to which a local pizza shop will deliver.

Vernacular regions have loosely defined boundaries based on people’s perceptions or thoughts. Vernacular regions can be fluid – that is, different people may have different opinions about the limits of the regions. Vernacular regions include concepts such as the region called the “Middle East.” Many people have a rough idea of the Middle East’s location but do not know which countries make up the Middle East. Also, in the United States, the terms Midwest or South have many variations. Each individual might have a different idea about the location of the boundaries of the South or the Midwest. Whether the state of Kentucky belongs in the Midwest or the South might be a matter of individual perception.

Similarly, various regions of the United States have been referred to as the Rust Belt, Sun Belt, or Bible Belt without a clear definition of their boundaries. The limit of a vernacular area is more a matter of perception than of any formally agreed-upon criteria. Nevertheless, most people would recognize the general area being discussed when using one of the vernacular terms in a conversation.

World Regional Geography

World regional geography studies various world regions as they compare with the rest of the world. Factors for comparison include both the physical and the cultural landscape. The main questions are, Who lives there? What are their lives like? What do they do for a living? Physical factors of significance can include location, climate type, and terrain. Human factors include cultural traditions, ethnicity, language, religion, economics, and politics.

World regional geography focuses on regions of various sizes across the earth’s landscape and aspires to understand the unique character of regions in terms of their natural and cultural attributes. Spatial studies can play an essential role in regional geography. The scientific approach can focus on the distribution of cultural and natural phenomena within regions as delimited by various natural and cultural factors. The focus is on the spatial relationships within any field of study, such as regional economics, resource management, regional planning, and landscape ecology.

The regions studied in world regional geography can be combined into larger portions called realms. Realms are large areas of the planet, usually, with multiple regions, that share the same general geographic location. Regions are cohesive areas within each realm. The following eleven realms are outlined in this text (click on the links to view them in Google Maps:

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Introduction to World Regional Geography by R. Adam Dastrup, MA, GISP is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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