Process Geomorphology

Alec Aitken,
University of Saskatchewan


The description and objective classification of landforms and the principles and processes involved in their origin and distribution. The role of weathering, mass movement, fluvial, glacial, aeolian and coastal processes in shaping Canadian landscapes will be emphasized in this course.

Prerequisite(s): GEOG 120 Introduction to Global Environmental Systems or GEOL 121 Earth Processes or permission of the instructor.

Course Size:

Course Format:
Students enroll in one course that includes both lecture and lab. The lecture is taught by the professor and the lab is taught by TAs.

Institution Type:
University with graduate programs, including doctoral programs

Course Context:

This is a second (sophomore) year geosciences course and serves as a pre-requisite for GEOG 335 Glacial Geomorphology. GEOG 235 is a foundational geosciences course in the B.Sc. program in Environmental Earth Sciences; a senior geosciences course elective in the B.Sc. programs in Geography, Geology and Archaeology; and a senior natural science course elective in the B.A. & Sc. program in Environment and Society. The vast majority of students enrolled in this course are Environmental Earth Sciences and Geology majors.

Course Content:

Process Geomorphology begins with an overview of the historical development of the discipline of geomorphology, highlighting key concepts (e.g., uniformitarianism vs. catastrophism, base level, dynamic equilibrium and thresholds). The Rock Cycle and Plate Tectonics theory are reviewed to provide a framework for the study of tectonic geomorphology (e.g., orogenic mountain belts), weathering and sedimentation. The physical principles of sedimentation are examined and linked to landform development via mass wasting, fluvial, glacial, aeolian and coastal processes. Local field excursions, laboratory analysis of surficial sediments, and map interpretation and problem solving exercises provide students with opportunities to explore the morphology, sediment composition, and spatial association of local glacial, fluvial and aeolian landforms.

Course Goals:

By the end of this course, a student should be able to:
  1. Explain the historical development of the discipline of geomorphology.
  2. Describe the physical characteristics and spatial distribution of the physiographic elements(i.e., large-scale landforms) associated with continental landmasses and ocean basins.
  3. Explain the dynamics of the physical, chemical and biological processes that influence landform and landscape development in Canada.
  4. Analyse the morphology, composition and distribution of landforms in Canadian landscapes through field observations,and map interpretation and problem-solving exercises.

Course Features:

Students are required to participate in 3 field excursions. Students are introduced to techniques for topographic surveying and soil sampling during these excursions. They are also required to record their observations of landform morphology and to create sketch maps that illustrate the environmental setting of the landforms they observe. All of this information is incorporated into a field report, as well as the map interpretation and problem solving activities in the lab exercises.

Course Philosophy:

I am a field scientist by training. I consider experiential learning to be fundamental to the training of geoscientists and I have incorporated several field excursions that allow students to explore glacial, fluvial and aeolian landforms situated in proximity to the university campus. Skills related to topographic surveying, soil sampling, and landform recognition and description are relevant to employment in geological surveys, mineral exploration companies, and environmental consulting firms that are the primary employers of our program's graduates.


Midterm Exam 25% (a combination of multiple choice questions, short essays, map interpretation and problem solving exercises)

Laboratory Exercises: 5 bi-weekly exercises for 25% + full attendance on 3 field trips. Students are introduced to topographic surveying and soil sampling techniques on the field excursions. Survey data are used to construct landform maps. Sediment samples are analysed for particle size distribution. These data are incorporated into problem solving activities in the lab exercises.

Field Report 10% (A 1500 word report that integrates knowledge from peer-reviewed research articles with the student's field observations to create a narrative of postglacial landscape change in the vicinity of the university campus.)

Final Exam 40% (a combination of multiple choice questions, essay questions (2-3 double-spaced pages of text), map interpretation and problem solving exercises)


Process Geomorphology (Microsoft Word 73kB Jun3 14)

Teaching Materials:

References and Notes:

Alan S. Trenhaile, 2013. Geomorphology: A Canadian Perspective. 5th Edition. Oxford University Press, Don Mills, Ontario. 575 pages.
Textbook selection was based on several criteria:

  • focus on Canadian landscapes but with adequate representation of landscape examples from other
  • a concise overview of the historical development of the discipline of geomorphology
  • breadth of topics covered: each chapter is well illustrated and includes a bibliography of selected readings to support student's self-directed learning
  • physical processes related to rock formation and deformation, sediment production via weathering, and the erosion, transport and deposition of sediments in various environmental settings are treated with sufficient rigor: compels students to make connections to materials presented in introductory physics, chemistry and earth sciences courses and the application of this knowledge to landscape development.

I am the author of the materials that I use in the laboratory exercises. To the degree possible, students employ their field observations to complete the lab exercises.

P.F. Karrow and O.L. White. Editors. 1998. Urban Geology of Canadian Cities. Geological Association of Canada, St. John's, Newfoundland, Canada, 500 pages.
  • I use this resource to introduce students to the local glacial and post-glacial landscapes that we explore on field excursions.