Geography of the Sea

The following is an excerpt from a founding scholar in Marine Geography:

Smith, Hance D. (2004) Chapter 1The Geography of the Sea.  In: The Oceans: Key Issues in Marine Affairs.  Geojournal Library Vol 78.  Springer: Dordrecht. pp5-24.

“…In common with other academic fields, geography has developed major schools of thought- approaches or paradigms- each of which has developed to cope with specific aspects of the subject and areas of work.  Five of these are of importance in marine geography, namely the ecological, spatial, regional, behavioural and general systems analysis approaches.  In addition it is important to take account of the relationships between geography and other subjects…although the paradigms have developed in a land context, these are equally valuable in the marine context.

The human ecology approach to geography is especially suited to studies of natural resource use, both resources extracted and considering the environment itself as a resource.  By far the most important works are devoted to economic sectors.  This includes fisheries, and mineral and energy resources.  It is also a valuable approach in studies of waste disposal and pollution, leisure and recreation and conservation.

The spatial analysis approach in the marine field is most relevant to studies of shipping, ports and strategic themes.  In shipping geography there are several notable studies as is the case with ports. There are also studies of strategic interests and naval topics.  From the spatial analysis point of view, in a world which still depends overwhelmingly on sea transport, there are important links with work on the regional development of the global economy.

The regional geography of the sea is not well developed., but notably is advancing through the development of journal special issues.  Studies of marine resource development noted abover already also fall into this category in varying degrees.  Apart from notable early work on the North Atlantic and Pacific, a significant current strand relates to the natural science studies of large marine ecosystems, while earlier work on the physical geography of the sea has a strong regional dimension.  Great potential exists in the development of regional studies incorporating physical and human geography which are linked to the development of the economy and coastal and marine management issues.

Behavioural approaches to marine geography are few and far between.  However the rare substantial contributions with a geographical component by anthropologists and sociologists.  The values of these lies especially in environmental management in the context of organisations and decision-making and individual behaviour.

Beyond the ‘big four’ paradigms noted above, lies developing work in systems approaches, which although rooted to some extent in spatial analysis and regional approaches not trancends both to cut across the other four, and extends beyond into informing relationships between geography and other disciplines.  Systems analysis takes into account theories of complexity and chaos, which have recently become fashionable.  It is particularly useful in dealing with ocean and coastal management.

Finally to be considered is the relationship between geography and other subjects.  On the one hand are the natural sciences, where, as has already been pointed out, most geographical work has been done by non geographers.  However there have been notable contributions in the field of physical geography of the oceans and coasts.  IN the social sciences there are two groups of .  The first is those concerned with the human dimensions per se including psychology, anthropology, sociology, politics and law, and those which have an important focus on the material relationships of humanity including archaeology, economics, geography and history.

Sea, Land and Human Effort

It is possible then to conceive of a geography of the sea which can stand alongside a more conventional geography of the land, and share the same orthodox structure and paradigms, even though there are inevitably more gaps in marine geography than there are in land geography.  What then of the specialness of the sea, which gave the dominating characterisation of planet earth as the ‘pale blue dot’ described by Carl Sagan in his lecture to the 27th International Geographical Congress in Washington DC in 1992.  A least five different ideas highlight this specialness: the nature of the human mind; the strong maritime traditions based on human experience and thinking about the sea; the distinctive maritime communities which have existed down the ages, defined initially in terms of occupation; the singular technologies required to master the marine environment; and the unique nature of that environment in a planetary context….

The geography of the sea is inevitably not as well developed as the geography of the land.  On the physical side there remains much to be done on surveying and charting the sea bed, and gathering information on the seas itself.  On the human side there is much research needed on the uses of the sea and their development and management…”

Access to the full article can be found at Springer: