During the age of New Imperialism in the late 19th century, European explorers and scientists travelled across the globe bringing descriptions of landscapes and landforms. As geographical knowledge increased over time these observations were systematized in a search for regional patterns. Climate emerged thus as a prime factor for explaining landform distribution on a grand scale. The rise of climatic geomorphology was foreshadowed by the work of Wladimir Köppen, Vasily Dokuchaev and Andreas Schimper. William Morris Davis, the leading geomorphologist of his time, recognized the role of climate by complementing his “normal” temperate climate cycle of erosion with arid and glacial ones. Nevertheless, interest in climatic geomorphology was also a reaction against Davisian geomorphology that was by the mid-20th century considered both un-innovative and dubious. Early climatic geomorphology developed primarily in continental Europe while in the English-speaking world the tendency was not explicit until L.C. Peltier’s 1950 publication on a periglacial cycle of erosion.
Climatic geomorphology was criticized in a 1969 review article by process geomorphologist D.R. Stoddart. The criticism by Stoddart proved “devastating” sparking a decline in the popularity of climatic geomorphology in the late 20th century. Stoddart criticized climatic geomorphology for applying supposedly “trivial” methodologies in establishing landform differences between morphoclimatic zones, being linked to Davisian geomorphology and by allegedly neglecting the fact that physical laws governing processes are the same across the globe. In addition, some conceptions of climatic geomorphology, like that which holds that chemical weathering is more rapid in tropical climates than in cold climates proved to not be straightforwardly true.
Today, the field of geomorphology encompasses a very wide range of different approaches and interests. Modern researchers aim to draw out quantitative “laws” that govern Earth surface processes, but equally, recognize the uniqueness of each landscape and environment in which these processes operate. Particularly important realizations in contemporary geomorphology include:
- That not all landscapes can be considered as either “stable” or “perturbed”, where this perturbed state is a temporary displacement away from some ideal target form. Instead, dynamic changes of the landscape are now seen as an essential part of their nature.
- That many geomorphic systems are best understood in terms of the stochasticity of the processes occurring in them, that is, the probability distributions of event magnitudes and return times. This in turn has indicated the importance of chaotic determinism to landscapes, and those landscape properties are best considered statistically. The same processes in the same landscapes do not always lead to the same end results.
According to Karna Lidmar-Bergström, regional geography is since the 1990s no longer accepted by mainstream scholarship as a basis for geomorphological studies. Albeit having its importance diminished, climatic geomorphology continues to exist as a field of study producing relevant research. More recently concerns over global warming have led to a renewed interest in the field.
Despite considerable criticism, the cycle of erosion model has remained part of the science of geomorphology. The model or theory has never been proved wrong, but neither has it been proven. The inherent difficulties of the model have instead made geomorphological research to advance along other lines. In contrast to its disputed status in geomorphology, the cycle of erosion model is a common approach used to establish denudation chronologies and is thus an important concept in the science of historical geology. While acknowledging its shortcomings, modern geomorphologists Andrew Goudie and Karna Lidmar-Bergström have praised it for its elegance and pedagogical value respectively.