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A topographic map with contour lines Topographic map example.png
A topographic map with contour lines
This false-color satellite image illustrates topography of the urban core of the New York metropolitan area, with Manhattan at its center. Aster newyorkcity lrg.jpg
This false-color satellite image illustrates topography of the urban core of the New York metropolitan area, with Manhattan at its center.

Topography is the study of the forms and features of land surfaces. The topography of an area could refer to the land forms and features themselves, or a description (especially their depiction in maps).


Topography is a field of geoscience and planetary science and is concerned with local detail in general, including not only relief, but also natural and artificial features, and even local history and culture [ clarification needed ]. This meaning is less common in the United States, where topographic maps with elevation contours have made topography synonymous with relief.

Topography in a narrow sense involves the recording of relief or terrain, the three-dimensional quality of the surface, and the identification of specific landforms; this is also known as geomorphometry. In modern usage, this involves generation of elevation data in digital form (DEM). It is often considered to include the graphic representation of the landform on a map by a variety of cartographic relief depiction techniques, including contour lines, hypsometric tints, and relief shading. [1] [2] [3]


The term topography originated in ancient Greece and continued in ancient Rome, as the detailed description of a place. The word comes from the Greek τόπος (topos, "place") and -γραφία (-graphia, "writing"). [4] In classical literature this refers to writing about a place or places, what is now largely called 'local history'. In Britain and in Europe in general, the word topography is still sometimes used in its original sense. [5]

Detailed military surveys in Britain (beginning in the late eighteenth century) were called Ordnance Surveys, and this term was used into the 20th century as generic for topographic surveys and maps. [6] The earliest scientific surveys in France were called the Cassini maps after the family who produced them over four generations.[ citation needed ] The term "topographic surveys" appears to be American in origin. The earliest detailed surveys in the United States were made by the "Topographical Bureau of the Army," formed during the War of 1812, [7] which became the Corps of Topographical Engineers in 1838. [8] After the work of national mapping was assumed by the U.S. Geological Survey in 1878, the term topographical remained as a general term for detailed surveys and mapping programs, and has been adopted by most other nations as standard.

In the 20th century, the term topography started to be used to describe surface description in other fields where mapping in a broader sense is used, particularly in medical fields such as neurology.


An objective of topography is to determine the position of any feature or more generally any point in terms of both a horizontal coordinate system such as latitude, longitude, and altitude. Identifying (naming) features, and recognizing typical landform patterns are also part of the field.

A topographic study may be made for a variety of reasons: military planning and geological exploration have been primary motivators to start survey programs, but detailed information about terrain and surface features is essential for the planning and construction of any major civil engineering, public works, or reclamation projects.


There are a variety of approaches to studying topography. Which method(s) to use depends on the scale and size of the area under study, its accessibility, and the quality of existing surveys.

Field survey

A surveying point in Germany Vermessungspunkt.jpg
A surveying point in Germany

Surveying helps determine accurately the terrestrial or three-dimensional space position of points and the distances and angles between them using leveling instruments such as theodolites, dumpy levels and clinometers.

Work on one of the first topographic maps was begun in France by Giovanni Domenico Cassini, the great Italian astronomer.

Even though remote sensing has greatly sped up the process of gathering information, and has allowed greater accuracy control over long distances, the direct survey still provides the basic control points and framework for all topographic work, whether manual or GIS-based.

In areas where there has been an extensive direct survey and mapping program (most of Europe and the Continental U.S., for example), the compiled data forms the basis of basic digital elevation datasets such as USGS DEM data. This data must often be "cleaned" to eliminate discrepancies between surveys, but it still forms a valuable set of information for large-scale analysis.

The original American topographic surveys (or the British "Ordnance" surveys) involved not only recording of relief, but identification of landmark features and vegetative land cover.

Remote sensing

Remote sensing is a general term for geodata collection at a distance from the subject area.

Passive sensor methodologies

Besides their role in photogrammetry, aerial and satellite imagery can be used to identify and delineate terrain features and more general land-cover features. Certainly they have become more and more a part of geovisualization, whether maps or GIS systems. False-color and non-visible spectra imaging can also help determine the lie of the land by delineating vegetation and other land-use information more clearly. Images can be in visible colours and in other spectrum.


Photogrammetry is a measurement technique for which the co-ordinates of the points in 3D of an object are determined by the measurements made in two photographic images (or more) taken starting from different positions, usually from different passes of an aerial photography flight. In this technique, the common points are identified on each image. A line of sight (or ray) can be built from the camera location to the point on the object. It is the intersection of its rays (triangulation) which determines the relative three-dimensional position of the point. Known control points can be used to give these relative positions absolute values. More sophisticated algorithms can exploit other information on the scene known a priori (for example, symmetries in certain cases allowing the rebuilding of three-dimensional co-ordinates starting from one only position of the camera).

Active sensor methodologies

Satellite RADAR mapping is one of the major techniques of generating Digital Elevation Models (see below). Similar techniques are applied in bathymetric surveys using sonar to determine the terrain of the ocean floor. In recent years, LIDAR (LIght Detection And Ranging), a remote sensing technique that uses a laser instead of radio waves, has increasingly been employed for complex mapping needs such as charting canopies and monitoring glaciers.

Forms of topographic data

Terrain is commonly modelled either using vector (triangulated irregular network or TIN) or gridded (Raster image) mathematical models. In the most applications in environmental sciences, land surface is represented and modelled using gridded models. In civil engineering and entertainment businesses, the most representations of land surface employ some variant of TIN models. In geostatistics, land surface is commonly modelled as a combination of the two signals – the smooth (spatially correlated) and the rough (noise) signal.

In practice, surveyors first sample heights in an area, then use these to produce a Digital Land Surface Model in the form of a TIN. The DLSM can then be used to visualize terrain, drape remote sensing images, quantify ecological properties of a surface or extract land surface objects. Note that the contour data or any other sampled elevation datasets are not a DLSM. A DLSM implies that elevation is available continuously at each location in the study area, i.e. that the map represents a complete surface. Digital Land Surface Models should not be confused with Digital Surface Models, which can be surfaces of the canopy, buildings and similar objects. For example, in the case of surface models produces using the lidar technology, one can have several surfaces – starting from the top of the canopy to the actual solid earth. The difference between the two surface models can then be used to derive volumetric measures (height of trees etc.).

Raw survey data

Topographic survey information is historically based upon the notes of surveyors. They may derive naming and cultural information from other local sources (for example, boundary delineation may be derived from local cadastral mapping). While of historical interest, these field notes inherently include errors and contradictions that later stages in map production resolve.

Remote sensing data

As with field notes, remote sensing data (aerial and satellite photography, for example), is raw and uninterpreted. It may contain holes (due to cloud cover for example) or inconsistencies (due to the timing of specific image captures). Most modern topographic mapping includes a large component of remotely sensed data in its compilation process.

Topographic mapping

A map of Europe using elevation modeling Europe topography map.png
A map of Europe using elevation modeling

In its contemporary definition, topographic mapping shows relief. In the United States, USGS topographic maps show relief using contour lines. The USGS calls maps based on topographic surveys, but without contours, "planimetric maps."

These maps show not only the contours, but also any significant streams or other bodies of water, forest cover, built-up areas or individual buildings (depending on scale), and other features and points of interest.

While not officially "topographic" maps, the national surveys of other nations share many of the same features, and so they are often called "topographic maps."

Existing topographic survey maps, because of their comprehensive and encyclopedic coverage, form the basis for much derived topographic work. Digital Elevation Models, for example, have often been created not from new remote sensing data but from existing paper topographic maps. Many government and private publishers use the artwork (especially the contour lines) from existing topographic map sheets as the basis for their own specialized or updated topographic maps. [9]

Topographic mapping should not be confused with geologic mapping. The latter is concerned with underlying structures and processes to the surface, rather than with identifiable surface features.

Digital elevation modeling

Relief map: Sierra Nevada Mountains, Spain Maps-for-free Sierra Nevada.png
Relief map: Sierra Nevada Mountains, Spain
3D rendering of a DEM used for the topography of Mars Mtm-05277e 3d.png
3D rendering of a DEM used for the topography of Mars

The digital elevation model (DEM) is a raster-based digital dataset of the topography (hypsometry and/or bathymetry) of all or part of the Earth (or a telluric planet). The pixels of the dataset are each assigned an elevation value, and a header portion of the dataset defines the area of coverage, the units each pixel covers, and the units of elevation (and the zero-point). DEMs may be derived from existing paper maps and survey data, or they may be generated from new satellite or other remotely sensed radar or sonar data.

Topological modeling

STL 3D model of Earth without liquid water with 20x elevation exaggeration Earth dry elevation.stl
STL 3D model of Earth without liquid water with 20× elevation exaggeration

A geographic information system (GIS) can recognize and analyze the spatial relationships that exist within digitally stored spatial data. These topological relationships allow complex spatial modelling and analysis to be performed. Topological relationships between geometric entities traditionally include adjacency (what adjoins what), containment (what encloses what), and proximity (how close something is to something else).

Topography in other fields

Topography has been applied to different science fields. In neuroscience, the neuroimaging discipline uses techniques such as EEG topography for brain mapping. In ophthalmology, corneal topography is used as a technique for mapping the surface curvature of the cornea. In tissue engineering, atomic force microscopy is used to map nanotopography.

In human anatomy, topography is superficial human anatomy.

In mathematics the concept of topography is used to indicate the patterns or general organization of features on a map or as a term referring to the pattern in which variables (or their values) are distributed in a space.


Topographers are experts in topography.

See also

Related Research Articles

Geographic information system System to capture, manage and present geographic data

A geographic information system (GIS) is a type of database containing geographic data, combined with software tools for managing, analyzing, and visualizing those data. In a broader sense, one may consider such a system to also include human users and support staff, procedures and workflows, body of knowledge of relevant concepts and methods, and institutional organizations.

Lidar Method of spatial measurement using laser scanning

Lidar is a method for determining ranges by targeting an object or a surface with a laser and measuring the time for the reflected light to return to the receiver. It can also be used to make digital 3-D representations of areas on the Earth's surface and ocean bottom of the intertidal and near coastal zone by varying the wavelength of light. It has terrestrial, airborne, and mobile applications.

Topographic map Medium to large scale map that shows a precise map of the terrain

In modern mapping, a topographic map or topographic sheet is a type of map characterized by large-scale detail and quantitative representation of relief features, usually using contour lines, but historically using a variety of methods. Traditional definitions require a topographic map to show both natural and artificial features. A topographic survey is typically based upon a systematic observation and published as a map series, made up of two or more map sheets that combine to form the whole map. A topographic map series uses a common specification that includes the range of cartographic symbols employed, as well as a standard geodetic framework that defines the map projection, coordinate system, ellipsoid and geodetic datum. Official topographic maps also adopt a national grid referencing system.

Digital elevation model 3D computer-generated imagery and measurements of terrain

A digital elevation model (DEM) is a 3D computer graphics representation of elevation data to represent terrain, commonly of a planet, moon, or asteroid. A "global DEM" refers to a discrete global grid. DEMs are used often in geographic information systems, and are the most common basis for digitally produced relief maps.

A GIS file format is a standard of encoding geographical information into a computer file. They are created mainly by government mapping agencies or by GIS software developers.

Advanced Spaceborne Thermal Emission and Reflection Radiometer Japanese imaging device aboard NASAs Terra satellite

The Advanced Spaceborne Thermal Emission and Reflection Radiometer (ASTER) is a Japanese remote sensing instrument onboard the Terra satellite launched by NASA in 1999. It has been collecting data since February 2000.

Terrain Vertical and horizontal dimension and shape of land surface

Terrain or relief involves the vertical and horizontal dimensions of land surface. The term bathymetry is used to describe underwater relief, while hypsometry studies terrain relative to sea level. The Latin word terra means "earth."

Aerial archaeology is the study of archaeological remains by examining them from altitude.

Bathymetry Study of underwater depth of lake or ocean floors

Bathymetry is the study of underwater depth of ocean floors, lake floors, or river floors. In other words, bathymetry is the underwater equivalent to hypsometry or topography. The first recorded evidence of water depth measurements are from Ancient Egypt over 3000 years ago. Bathymetric charts are typically produced to support safety of surface or sub-surface navigation, and usually show seafloor relief or terrain as contour lines and selected depths (soundings), and typically also provide surface navigational information. Bathymetric maps may also use a Digital Terrain Model and artificial illumination techniques to illustrate the depths being portrayed. The global bathymetry is sometimes combined with topography data to yield a global relief model. Paleobathymetry is the study of past underwater depths.

Elevation Height of a geographic location above a fixed reference point

The elevation of a geographic location is its height above or below a fixed reference point, most commonly a reference geoid, a mathematical model of the Earth's sea level as an equipotential gravitational surface . The term elevation is mainly used when referring to points on the Earth's surface, while altitude or geopotential height is used for points above the surface, such as an aircraft in flight or a spacecraft in orbit, and depth is used for points below the surface.

Shuttle Radar Topography Mission Project to create a digital topographic database of Earth

The Shuttle Radar Topography Mission (SRTM) is an international research effort that obtained digital elevation models on a near-global scale from 56°S to 60°N, to generate the most complete high-resolution digital topographic database of Earth prior to the release of the ASTER GDEM in 2009. SRTM consisted of a specially modified radar system that flew on board the Space Shuttle Endeavour during the 11-day STS-99 mission in February 2000. The radar system was based on the older Spaceborne Imaging Radar-C/X-band Synthetic Aperture Radar (SIR-C/X-SAR), previously used on the Shuttle in 1994. To acquire topographic data, the SRTM payload was outfitted with two radar antennas. One antenna was located in the Shuttle's payload bay, the other – a critical change from the SIR-C/X-SAR, allowing single-pass interferometry – on the end of a 60-meter (200-foot) mast that extended from the payload bay once the Shuttle was in space. The technique employed is known as interferometric synthetic aperture radar. Intermap Technologies was the prime contractor for processing the interferometric synthetic aperture radar data.

Geomorphometry, or geomorphometrics, is the science and practice of measuring the characteristics of terrain, the shape of the surface of the Earth, and the effects of this surface form on human and natural geography. It gathers various mathematical, statistical and image processing techniques that can be used to quantify morphological, hydrological, ecological and other aspects of a land surface. Common synonyms for geomorphometry are geomorphological analysis, terrain morphometry, terrain analysis, and land surface analysis. Geomorphometrics is the discipline based on the computational measures of the geometry, topography and shape of the Earth's horizons, and their temporal change. This is a major component of geographic information systems (GIS) and other software tools for spatial analysis.

Terrain cartography Representation of elevation on maps

Terrain cartography or relief mapping is the depiction of the shape of the surface of the Earth on a map, using one or more of several techniques that have been developed. Terrain or relief is an essential aspect of physical geography, and as such its portrayal presents a central problem in cartographic design, and more recently geographic information systems and geovisualization.


A stereoplotter uses stereo photographs to determine elevations. It has been the primary method to plot contour lines on topographic maps since the 1930s. Although the specific devices have advanced technologically, they are all based on the apparent change in position of a feature in the two stereo photographs.

Orienteering map

An orienteering map is a map specially prepared for use in orienteering events. It is a large-scale topographic map with extra markings to help the participant navigate through the course.

Planetary cartography, or cartography of extraterrestrial objects (CEO), is the cartography of solid objects outside of the Earth. Planetary maps can show any spatially mapped characteristic for extraterrestrial surfaces.

Digital outcrop model Digital 3D representation of the outcrop surface

A digital outcrop model (DOM), also called a virtual outcrop model, is a digital 3D representation of the outcrop surface, mostly in a form of textured polygon mesh.

Seafloor mapping Measurement and presentation of water depth of a given body of water

Seafloor mapping, also called seafloor imaging, is the measurement, mapping, and imaging of water depth of the ocean or another given body of water. Bathymetric measurements are conducted with various methods, from depth sounding, sonar and Lidar techniques, to buoys and satellite altimetry. Various methods have advantages and disadvantages and the specific method used depends upon the scale of the area under study, financial means, desired measurement accuracy, and additional variables. Despite modern computer-based research, the ocean seabed in many locations is less measured than the topography of Mars.

Remote sensing (geology) Remote sensing used in the geological sciences as a data acquisition method

Remote sensing in geology is remote sensing used in the geological sciences as a data acquisition method complementary to field observation, because it allows mapping of geological characteristics of regions without physical contact with the areas being explored. About one-fourth of the Earth's total surface area is exposed land where information is ready to be extracted from detailed earth observation via remote sensing. Remote sensing is conducted via detection of electromagnetic radiation by sensors. The radiation can be naturally sourced, or produced by machines and reflected off of the Earth surface. The electromagnetic radiation acts as an information carrier for two main variables. First, the intensities of reflectance at different wavelengths are detected, and plotted on a spectral reflectance curve. This spectral fingerprint is governed by the physio-chemical properties of the surface of the target object and therefore helps mineral identification and hence geological mapping, for example by hyperspectral imaging. Second, the two-way travel time of radiation from and back to the sensor can calculate the distance in active remote sensing systems, for example, Interferometric synthetic-aperture radar. This helps geomorphological studies of ground motion, and thus can illuminate deformations associated with landslides, earthquakes, etc.

Geological structure measurement by LiDAR technology is a remote sensing method applied in structural geology. It enables monitoring and characterisation of rock bodies. This method's typical use is to acquire high resolution structural and deformational data for identifying geological hazards risk, such as assessing rockfall risks or studying pre-earthquake deformation signs.


  1. What is topography? – Center for Geographic Information
  2. Definition from WordNet Search –
  3. Definition from Federal Citizen Information Center –
  4. Online Etymology Dictionary –
  5. For example, see the websites of the Victoria County History and London Topographical Society
  6. Oxford English Dictionary – "Ordnance Survey"
  7. Topographical Engineers – History and Personnel Archived 2014-09-26 at the Wayback Machine
  8. Charting the Inland Seas: A History of the U.S. Lake Survey, Arthur M. Woodford, 1991
  9. See for example the publications of National Geographic Trails Illustrated Maps Archived 2006-11-16 at the Wayback Machine and DeLorme products.