T he best teacher I ever had taught geography at William R. Boone High School in Orlando, Florida. Her name was Mary Row, and it’s a shame you didn’t know her as I did — at the very least, it would have saved you the cost of this book.

Mrs. Row had an incredible knack for taking a class of tenth-graders and turning them into ex-dummies, at least with respect to geography. Indeed, some of the students who walked into her classroom on the first day of school simply didn’t give a hoot. I know. I was there. But when that lady got done with us, we were upstart experts on geography and loved the subject.

In retrospect, I believe a principal key to Mrs. Row’s success was her philosophy of geography. As far as she was concerned, Earth is a very fascinating place. The purpose of geography, as she saw it, is to convey the wonderment of it all and to explain how the world works. Thus, her lessons emphasized the interactions between the various things that characterized Earth’s surface and how they related to everyday life. So thanks to Mrs. Row, geography was not only the most interesting subject I studied in high school, but also the most relevant.

Hopefully, this volume will instill in you some measure of the wonderment that came my way those many years ago, and whet your appetite for more.

About This Book

Introductory books on geography generally come in two varieties. This one takes a topical approach to the subject. That means the chapters focus on topics of interest to geography, such as maps, climate, population, and culture. I wanted this book to focus on the key concepts of geography and introduce you to a wide-range of geographic information. Basically, I thought those goals could best be achieved by taking a topical approach.

The alternative was to take a regional approach to geography, which is like a world tour. You know what I mean, right? Chapter 4: Europe. Chapter 5: Africa. And so forth. In all candor, I didn’t think I could give you a decent world tour in the allotted pages. Besides, books like that for people like you are already on the market, so why reinvent the wheel? More importantly, I wanted Geography For Dummies to emphasize geography rather than the world per se. That may cause you to say, “Wait a minute! Isn’t geography all about the world?” The answer is yes, but in a larger sense, geography is about a whole lot more. Specifically, it’s about concepts and processes and connections between things, plus maps and tools and perspectives that combine individual “world facts” and give you big pictures that are so much more meaningful than their myriad components. Parenthetically, there’s a curious thing about those geography-as-world-tour books. They all seem to start by telling you geography is so much more than facts about the world, and then spend 350 pages telling you facts about the world.

Foolish Assumptions

I’m going to assume that you are an average person who is curious about the world but who just happens to have a limited background in geography. And I firmly believe “average” means intelligent, so nothing is out of bounds because of the gray stuff between your ears. Instead, in my view, you are completely capable of digesting the real meat and drink (or tofu and carrot juice, if you prefer) of geography. You may be 14, or 44, or 84. It doesn’t matter. As far as I am concerned, you’re ready for prime-time geography. Please understand I’m not talking wimpy stuff like “What’s the capital of Nevada?” No way. I’m talking big league stuff like how you can have a rainforest on one side of a mountain range and a desert on the other; or how to choose a good location for a shopping mall; or how ocean currents help to determine the geography of climates.

I’m also going to assume that, generally speaking, you know your way around the world. Thus, when you see terms like Pacific Ocean, Nile River, Europe, or Japan, some kind of mental map pops up inside your head and allows you to “see” where they are located. On the other hand, when you meet up with terms like Burkina Faso, Skaggerak, or Myanmar, you may need some outside help. For that reason, it will be helpful to have an atlas handy.

Finally, if this were a beer, then I’m assuming you went to your bookstore to pick up some Geography Lite. That is, you want the real thing, but figure you don’t need all the calories. One of my goals is to make this book a painless — and indeed a pleasurable — experience. A lite-hearted read, if you will, that also communicates some serious geography and leaves you with a well-rounded exposure to the subject. If that sounds about right, then I invite you to keep reading.

How This Book Is Organized

This book is divided into four major parts that address broad areas of geography, plus a fifth part with ancillary information. Each of these parts consists of chapters that concentrate on an important aspect of that subject area. Following is the full story.

Part I: Getting Grounded: The Geographic Basics

This section introduces you to the major concepts, modes of thinking, and tools of geography. Sadly, many people think that geography is little more than a category on TV quiz shows. Accordingly, my first task is to set the record straight concerning what geography is and what it is not. Thus, you will encounter examples that highlight the nature of geography and show you how to think like a geographer.

Maps are the most basic tools of geography. If this book didn’t talk about them in some detail, then it couldn’t claim to be a grown-up primer on geography (which it does). Thus, you encounter an overview of latitude and longitude, the basic principles of map-making, and the fundamentals of map reading. In addition to maps, which are about as old as geography itself, modern geographers use some really neat cutting-edge technology that helps them locate and analyze phenomena on Earth’s surface. You’ll meet some of that technology in this section.

Part II: Getting Physical: Land, Water, and Air

This section introduces you to Earth’s physical characteristics and the processes that underlie them. Geography plays out on an Earthly stage of astonishing variety. Landforms, water bodies, soils, vegetation — they’re all here. And above it all is a remarkable atmosphere that gives us air to breathe, rainfall to sustain plant and animal life, and temperature environments that warm us up, chill us out, and do everything else in between.

Therefore, understanding the characteristics and locations of the Earth’s natural features is fundamental to a sound geographic education. But landforms and other aspects of the natural world don’t “just happen.” Everything you see today, everything that existed yesterday, and everything that will characterize Earth in the future are the result of natural processes. Understanding these processes is as fundamental to geography as knowing the landforms they produce; for only by understanding the processes can you really understand the world.

Part III: Peopling the Planet

This section introduces you to the basic content and concepts of human geography. Arguably, people are the most important phenomenon that characterizes Earth’s surface, and probably the most complex and diverse as well. Areas of extraordinary population density contrast with regions in which people are few and far between — at least for now. That qualification is appropriate because, thanks to migration and reproductive biology, the distribution of people is forever in a state of flux.

But human geography is not just a numbers game. All humans possess an array of culture traits which, in their depth and breadth, not only differentiate one group of people from the next, but also add substantial variety to the look and feel of the world in which we live. On top of that, people are territorial. They have a propensity to divide and control Earth’s surface, creating countries and other political entities that, by creating nationalities and jurisdictions, further characterize and complicate the picture. In occupying the planet, therefore, people have imparted a rich mosaic of attributes to their Earthly home. Acquiring a basic understanding of them is part and parcel of becoming a geographically informed person.

Part IV: Putting the Planet to Use

This section focuses on characteristics and consequences of human use of Earth. As Parts II and III respectively emphasize, natural features (like landforms and climates) characterize our world, and human features do the same. But these sets of characteristics do not exist in isolation from each other. We humans not only occupy the planet — we also put it to use as we construct our homes and settlements, make a living, produce our food, garner resources, and dispose of our refuse.

The Earth, therefore, is a natural entity that we impact and modify. Increas-ingly, therefore, as geographers describe and explain Earth’s character, the story line concerns the role of humans in changing the face of the planet and altering its environmental quality, usually for the worse. Different people impact different regions in different ways. Nevertheless, general principles and concepts have been identified that help us to understand the nature and results of our actions and also hint at strategies to improve our planetary stewardship. You’ll be introduced to them in this section.

Part V: The Part of Tens

You want lists? Well, in the grand finale tradition of For Dummies books, I give you lists. They concern organizations and agencies that can provide you with very useful information and materials and information about careers in geo-graphy. And for a real change, if you feel like forgetting a few things, you can find a list for that, too!

Icons Used in This Book

From time to time you will encounter circular, cartoon-like figures in the left-hand margin of the text. The purpose of these icons is to alert you to the presence of something that is comparatively noteworthy amidst the passing prose. That may be something I regard as particularly important, or something you may wish to take your time to think about, or something you may wish to skip. In any event, here are the icons and their meanings.

This icon identifies a major concept that is “big” in the sense of having widespread applicability or broad explanatory power. It does not necessarily mean “difficult to understand.” Indeed, most big ideas turn out to mean something rather simple.


Like many subjects, geography contains some specialized and perhaps arcane vocabulary terms that cause normal, well-adjusted people like you to scratch their heads. I could bypass this geo-jargon altogether, but then you really wouldn’t be discovering more about geography, would you? So instead, you and I will meet the jargon head-on and do what is necessary to make sure you understand it. Graticule? Complementarity? Evapotranspiration? They’re not going to be a problem.


Occasionally, you will encounter a rule of thumb that clarifies a concept or helps to make sense of something. Likewise, you will sometimes come across a sentence or phrase that captures the essence of a principle or the theme of a chapter or of the entire book. Those kinds of tidbits are especially worth remembering and are identified by this icon.


Geography involves elements of math, science, technology, ecology, modeling, and other technical stuff. Some will show up in this book because they are relevant to a well-rounded geographic education even at this introductory level. I do appreciate, however, that some people may find these a bit too complicated. This icon alerts you to the presence of technical stuff and is meant to suggest three things. First, you have encountered something that is somewhat challenging to comprehend relative to the general contents of this book. Second, it’s no reflection on your intelligence if you think this is a bit complicated. Third, you can skip it if you wish. As a side note, this icon has been likened to a nerdy guy with big glasses. I fear it looks a little too much like me.


Some aspects of geography are a little involved, so it’s always nice to encounter information that helps you simplify a process or cut through the bafflegab and make things easier to comprehend. Those are the kinds of items this icon pinpoints.

Where to Go from Here

You can take that two ways: where to go when you’re done with this page, and where to go when you’re done with this book. Regarding the former, I recommend you read this book from start to finish as you would a novel. To some extent, geographic knowledge is cumulative. That is, there are basic concepts and information that provide a foundation for understanding other concepts and information. Accordingly, the parts and chapters of this book follow a certain logical progression. In short, I do believe the content of this book will make more sense to you if you read this volume from start to finish. However, if you wish, you can dive into chapters at random — each chapter is set up to be self-contained.

And where do you go when you’re done? As I’ve already mentioned, the Part of Tens (Part V) contains references to careers in geography and organizations and web sites that can further your interest in and mastery of the subject. So, if in fact this book whets your appetite for more, then there’s information at the end to help satisfy the hunger.

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