Physical Geography

The common thread in physical geography at UW-Madison has been a focus on environmental change, broadly defined to include climatic change and its effects on earth systems, human impacts on the environment, and environmental change that affected prehistoric peoples. Teaching and research in the physical geography program considers environmental change over periods ranging from recent historic times to the Quaternary (the last 2 million years).


Research on these aspects of environmental change at Wisconsin foreshadowed their emergence as pre-eminent concerns of physical geography today. The best-known example is probably the work on fluvial response to climatic change that was done by Jim Knox at Wisconsin in the 1970's and 1980's, which integrated the quantitative revolution in geomorphology (and physical geography in general) with a growing body of knowledge on past climatic change. This work is still widely cited in studies of fluvial systems in regions as diverse as the Great Plains, northern Europe, and southern Africa. Work by Knox on the streams of the Wisconsin Driftless Area is also a classic case of research on the geomorphic impacts of land use change. Other geomorphology and soils research in the Geography Department at UW-Madison has emphasized both paleoclimatic impacts and the paleoenvironments in which ancient peoples lived. Tom Vale's research in biogeography has focused on recent vegetation change in the western U.S., and the impacts of fire and human activity on vegetation. These issues are the subject of much current research in biogeography, and are also central to major public policy debates over land use and resource management in the American West. Physical geographers also played an important role in the emergence of the University of Wisconsin as a center of paleoclimatic research.

An emphasis on environmental change at both historical and Quaternary timescales will continue to characterize physical geography at UW-Madison, based on recent faculty hires. The physical geography program is also well-positioned relative to two recent trends in research on environmental change. One trend is toward greater emphasis on collaborative research groups investigating climate, the terrestrial biosphere, and surficial processes. Both Jack Williams and Joe Mason are actively involved in such collaborative research groups. The broad, integrative approach that has long been taken in teaching physical geography at Wisconsin is also excellent preparation for students entering this type of work. The other trend is toward increasingly sophisticated efforts to model the global or regional interactions of atmospheric, biological, and earth systems. Historically, physical geography at Wisconsin has emphasized field-based research, but Jack Williams' research integrates field data with earth system modeling, adding a new dimension to the physical geography program.

Joe Mason studies Eolian and hillslope geomorphology, loess stratigraphy/sedimentology, soils and paleosols, Quaternary landscape evolution, Quaternary paleoenvironments of the Midwest, the Great Plains and northern China

Erika Marín-Spiotta is interested in recent human impacts on biogeochemical cycles and biodiversity. Her research approach integrates field and lab work across different spatial scales, from landscape-level effects of changes in land use on species composition and carbon dynamics, to molecular changes in organic matter chemistry. Her research and teaching interests span both Physical and People-Environment Geography.

Jack Williams is interested in vegetation dynamics and the couplings of the terrestrial biosphere and other components of the earth system, at timescales from decades to millennia. Much of his recent work has focused on mapping vegetation history and land cover change in North America, developing benchmark datasets for refining and testing earth system models. He is also investigating the effect of Holocene land cover change in eastern North America on regional atmospheric dynamics and climate variability. Jim Burt and A-Xing Zhu have teaching and research interests, described in the following section, that span the boundary between GIScience and physical geography.