Topographic relief

Occasionally, I use the word “relief” or “topographic relief” in conversation, and often my listener misunderstands that term.  Topography is a term used to describe the shape or roughness of a surface.  For example, a topographic map contains information about the shape of the Earth’s surface, expressed as contour lines of equal elevation above sea level.  Relief or topographic relief describes the amount of topographic change within a particular area.  Another way to look at relief is the difference between the highest point and the lowest point in a given area.

Death Valley National Park in California exhibits extreme relief.

Death Valley National Park in California is said to have extremely high relief.  The highest point in the park is Telescope Peak at 11,049 feet above sea level, whereas only a few miles away is the lowest point in the park at -282 feet below sea level.  Thus, the total relief in Death Valley National Park is 11,331 feet.  Mountainous areas like  western Colorado are said to have high relief, whereas flatter areas like Louisiana have low relief.  However, some people confuse high elevation with high relief.  Areas like the Great Divide Basin in Wyoming have high elevation, but the total relief across the basin is relatively low.

This area near the Great Divide Basin in Wyoming is relatively low relief, but high elevation.

The highest point in the entire state of Florida is 345 feet above sea level.  The lowest point is obviously sea level, making Florida the lowest relief state in the United States with only 345 feet difference in elevation between the highest and lowest points.  By comparison, my house is 1,197 feet above sea level.  The summit Camelback Mountain, about 4 miles from my house, is 2,704 feet above sea level, for a difference of 1,507 feet.  Obviously, the relief around the Phoenix metro area is much greater than anywhere within the entire state of Florida.

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