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Topography is the study of the shape and features of land surfaces. The topography of an area could refer to the surface shapes 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. 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 techniques, including contour lines, hypsometric tints, and relief shading.
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 ÓTopographical Bureau of the Army,- formed during the War of 1812, which became the Corps of Topographical Engineers in 1838. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.