AskDefine | Define topography

Dictionary Definition



1 the configuration of a surface and the relations among its man-made and natural features
2 precise detailed study of the surface features of a region

User Contributed Dictionary



First attested in 1432. From etyl enm topographye from etyl la topographia, from etyl grc τοπογραφία < τόπος + γράφω.


  • (UK) /təˈpɒgɹəfi/, /t@"pQgr@fi/
  • (US) /təˈpɑgɹəfi/, /t@"pAgr@fi/
  • Hyphenation: top·og·raphy


  1. a precise description of a place
  2. a detailed graphic representation of the surface features of a place or object
  3. the features themselves (the terrain)
  4. the surveying of the features

See also

Extensive Definition

distinguish topology
Topography (topo-, "place", and graphia, "writing") is the study of Earth's surface features or those of planets, moons, and asteroids.
In a broader sense, topography is concerned with local detail in general, including not only relief but also vegetative and human-made features, and even local history and culture. This meaning is less common in America, where topographic maps with elevation contours have made "topography" synonymous with relief. The older sense of topography as the study of place still has currency in Europe.
For the purposes of this article, topography specifically 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 electronic form. It is often considered to include the graphic representation of the landform on a map by a variety of techniques, including contour lines, Hypsometric tints, and relief shading.


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 words (topos, place) and (graphia, writing). 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.
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. The earliest scientific surveys in France were called the Cassini maps after the family who produced them over four generations . 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 . 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, partcularly in medical fields such as neurology.


The 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 and 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.

Techniques of topography

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

Direct survey

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.
Even though remote sensing has greatly speeded 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 US, 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.

Aerial and satellite imagery

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 spectra.


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).

Radar and sonar

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.

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 Surface Model (also known as a digital elevation model). 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

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 generally 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 countour lines) from existing topographic map sheets as the basis for their own specialized or updated topographic maps
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

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 are of coverage, the units each pixel covers, and the units of elevation (and the zero-point). DEMs may be derived from exisitng paper maps and survey data, or they may be generated from new satellite or other remotely-sensed radar or sonar data.

Topological modeling

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).
  • reconstitute a sight in synthesized images of the ground,
  • determine a trajectory of overflight of the ground,
  • calculate surfaces or volumes,
  • trace topographic profiles,
  • handle in a quantitative way the studied ground.

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.


topography in Arabic: طبوغرافية
topography in Asturian: Topografía
topography in Bosnian: Topografija
topography in Catalan: Topografia
topography in Czech: Topografie
topography in Danish: Topografi
topography in German: Topografie (Kartografie)
topography in Spanish: Topografía
topography in Esperanto: Topografio
topography in French: Topographie
topography in Galician: Topografía
topography in Croatian: Topografija
topography in Italian: Topografia
topography in Hebrew: טופוגרפיה
topography in Hungarian: Topográfia
topography in Dutch: Topografie
topography in Norwegian: Topografi
topography in Norwegian Nynorsk: Topografi
topography in Portuguese: Topografia
topography in Russian: Топография
topography in Simple English: Topography
topography in Slovak: Topografia
topography in Slovenian: Topografija
topography in Swedish: Topografi
topography in Chinese: 测绘学

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

Lambert conformal projection, Mercator projection, Miller projection, aeronautical chart, altimetry, astronomical chart, atlas, azimuthal equidistant projection, azimuthal projection, bathymetry, biometrics, biometry, cadastration, cartographer, cartography, celestial chart, celestial globe, chart, chorographer, chorography, climatic chart, conic projection, contour line, contour map, craniometry, cylindrical projection, general reference map, geodesy, geodetic satellite, geodetics, geography, globe, gnomonic projection, goniometry, graphic scale, grid line, hachure, heliographic chart, hydrographic chart, hypsography, hypsometry, index, isoline, latitude, layer tint, legend, longitude, map, map maker, map projection, mapper, mensuration, meridian, metrology, navigation, oceanography, orbiting geophysical observatory, parallel, photogrammetrist, photogrammetry, photomap, phototopography, physical map, planimetry, political map, polyconic projection, projection, psychometrics, psychometry, relief map, representative fraction, road map, scale, sinusoidal projection, special map, stereometry, surveying, terrain, terrain map, terrestrial globe, thematic map, topographer, topographic chart, transportation map, weather chart, weather map
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