Topography is the physical features that are found on an area of land including things such as river, lakes, mountains, roads, cities, dams and even valleys.

Topography can be:

  • Natural areas
  • Manmade areas

A map of Europe using elevation modeling


There are many areas that are covered by land. As a matter of fact, ¼ of the whole Earth is covered by land. As we know, not all land is the same. Some of the land is high and some places are very low. Some areas have grass, and some are just dirt. The Earth has different types of lands everywhere.

A topographic map with contour lines

All of the different features of land are called landforms. These are areas around us that have weather, weather conditions, natural events such as earthquakes or tsunamis and all different kinds of things that we see every day.

Different kinds of landforms include:

  • Deserts
  • Plains
  • Plateaus
  • Mountains
  • Valleys
  • Hills

What Kind of Tools Are Used in Topography?

There are different kinds of tools that are used to study the elevation of certain kinds of lands. One thing that is used is called a topographical map.

Satellite imagery illustrating topography of the urban core

Topographical Map

A topographical map is a map that shows the different features of a piece of land. Instead of just showing mountains and rivers, the topographical map is known for showing how the land changes and how elevation changes.

When seen on a topographical map, elevation is shown by using contour lines. Contour lines are lines that are curved.

When a contour line or a curved line is shown on the topographical map, it tells about elevation of the area. Each point that touches the same line has to be the same elevation.

On some topographical maps, there are numbers that are written on the map. These numbers will help you to know what the elevation is. The numbers are written on the lines.

When there are contour lines that are beside each other, this means that the different places have different elevations. When the lines are closer together, it means that the land has a steeper slope.

What Does Topography Mean?

The word topography actually comes from the Greek words, “Topos,” and “graphen.” “Topos” means “place,” and “graphein,” which means “to write. Topography helps to know and understand different places.

Topography is very important in the study of Earth Science.


Elevation is how high something is.

How Are Topographical Maps Made?

There are different ways that people get information for a topographical map. One way is that they use surveying. There are two types of surveying:

  • Direct Surveying
  • Indirect Surveying

Direct Surveying

Direct surveying is when surveying equipment is used on the ground. There are different kinds of surveying equipment such as:

  • Clinometers
  • Levels
  • Tripod
  • Leveler

These different instruments help the surveyor to be able to measure the exact location and the exact elevation of that piece of land. Some surveyors use a leveler machine that sits on a tripod. This helps them to see how much elevation there is.

Indirect Surveying

Indirect surveying is usually used in areas that are harder to get to. When this happens, the surveyor has to use indirect methods. Some indirect methods include:

  • Pictures from satellite
  • Pictures taken from airplanes
  • Radar
  • Sonar

Sonar is pictures or radar that is located under the water.

3D Topography

Even though most maps that we look at are drawn on a piece of paper that is flat, there are ways that scientists can make maps that are 3D. These maps make it look like you are looking right at the city or the land. If you are looking at something straight down on a flat piece of paper, it is hard to see how tall something is, but with the 3D visualization, scientists can see things from a different view and understand the elevation better.

What is the Purpose of Topography?

Topography is used for many purposes including:

  • Military purposes
  • Weather
  • Environment
  • Agriculture

Military Purposes

It is important for armies to know where they are going if there is ever a war or for training. Topography helps to find out the information on the elevation, the hills, where water is and the history of the land. This is important for military training and planning.


The way that a piece of land is set up can change the way that weather hits. Topography can help meteorologists, or people who study weather, to be able to know what kind of weather there will be on mountains, around the lakes and oceans and even in the valleys.


Using topography can help to save certain environments by helping scientists to understand the land. They can use topography to determine erosion that is caused by things such as wind and water. If there is a high wind area, scientists can build things like walls or sheds or wind blocks to stop some of the wind from moving through the area.


People that grow food need to know what kind of soil and land they are working with. Topography can help farmers to know if the soil is good and if it will get too much water and erode.

Categories of Topography

There are five different categories of topography:

  • Toponymy
  • Vegetation
  • Reliefs
  • Waters
  • Culture


Toponymy is the area of topography that shows the names of different places such as the names of water or the names of highways.


Part of topography includes areas with vegetation. This includes places that are wooded and places that are non-wooded.


Reliefs are a huge part of topography because they show things like valleys, mountains, hills and even plateaus.


Including waters such as lakes, streams, oceans and rivers is a huge part of topography.


Topography also includes cultural things such as where power lines are located, different cities and railroad areas.

Colors of a Topographical Map

A topographical map uses different colors to show different things:

  • Blue for bodies of water
  • Black for building, power lines, railroads
  • Green for different forests
  • Red for places of transportation such as trains or airports
  • Brown to show elevation
  • Orange to show roads that are not finished yet

Why is Topography Important?

Topography is important because it helps people to know what is around them. It helps people that hunt or fish to know about different wooded areas or water areas.

Topography is also important because it helps people like meteorologists to be able to predict the weather.

More Facts About Topography:

  • Toponymy is the study of topographical maps that include the names of places such as the Atlantic Ocean
  • People that camp or hunt might want to use a topographical map.
  • Landscapers use topographical maps so they know where they can build and where they cannot.
  • Sea Level is also at a 0 in topography.
  • Blue would be used to show the Nile River.

What Did You Learn?

  • What is topography?
    Topography is the study of maps that show elevation and different landforms.
  • What is a landform?
    A landform is any type of Earth that we see such as a forest, a road, a mountain and more.
  • Why is topography important?
    Topography is important because it shows people where things are like ponds, mountains, lakes and woods. It also helps meteorologists to be able to predict the weather in certain areas. Military groups use topographical maps to be able to make military strategies.
  • What colors are used on a topographical map?
    The colors that are used on a topographical map are red, brown, green, blue, orange and black. Each color represents a different thing on the map.
  • What are the people called that make topographical maps?
    People that make topographical maps are called surveyors.