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12 Types of Terrain You Need to Know

How many types of terrain do you know? And, how do you think a terrain can affect the type of habitat? Well, let’s take a deep dive and learn more together.

A terrain is defined as a parcel of land and its distinct features. It comes from the word “terra,” which simply means earth. Terrains are typically the vertical and horizontal dimensions of the land surface.

Understanding the different types of terrain is vital to determine the habitats that are fit for settlement.

When humans understand the landscape, they can choose areas fit for agricultural purposes and those that support soil conservation. They can also understand the area’s drainage system, watershed boundaries, and water movement to allow the prediction of water quality.

Sounds all complicated, right? Well, nature might be complex but, understanding it can make life all easy.

For instance, the understanding of earth terrain is quite important in creating military tactics. The armed forces are able to identify areas to take and hold off, as well as where to move their troops and materials.

It helps them create an offensive and defensive strategy.

The study of terrain has also made significant impacts on understanding weather patterns and aviation maneuvers.

To cut the chase, all types of terrain on earth have different features and supports a different ecosystem. 

Main Types of Terrain on Earth

Types of Terrain Illustration

1. Canyon

canyon terrain

First on our list of terrain types is a canyon. Most people know or have heard about the famous Grand Canyon. Well, what is a canyon, and how do they form?

A canyon forms when a river cuts through rocks creating a deep V-shaped valley. It is typically a gorge or a ravine in the ground, which is found between cliffs or mountain peaks, and forms due to erosion from the river, wind, and other weather elements.

Canyons forms from erosion of less resistant rocks like shale from the river banks and beds. The water flows through the crevices and cracks of rocks, and during winter, it freezes, forming ice crystals that expand, pushing the rocks apart, and a chunk of them breaks down. Sandstone and granite are harder rock strata that form the canyon walls as they are more resistant to this weathering process.

Canyons are mostly found in areas of limestone rocks because limestone is easily dissolved to a certain level. River distributaries initially carve out a deep cave system in the limestone bed.  Ultimately, the walls of the cave and its ceiling collapse, forming a canyon.

There are multiple types of canyons. They include a box canyon, slot canyon, mountain-type, and a submarine canyon. Canyons are found in different places across the globe, including South and North America, Asia, Africa, and throughout Europe.

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2. Karst


Typically, a karst landscape occurs when lots of water falling on the surface interacts with and enters the subsurface through fractures, cracks, and holes dissolved into the base or bedrock. It is a type of terrain that results from the dissolving action of soluble rocks like gypsum, limestone, and dolomite. 

This landscape comprises underground systems of caves and sinkholes. Some karst comprises totally underground features, especially where superimposed insoluble rock strata cover the dissolved river bed.

But does karst only form on soft rocks? Which other kinds of rock types produce karst terrain?

Well, aside from limestone and other soluble rocks, karst terrain has also been recorded in other harder and more insoluble rocks like quartzite. The only difference between the formation of the two is that they require different conditions. With the right conditions, even weather-resistant rocks can dissolve to form a karst.

3. Valley

valley terrain

Another common type of earth terrain is a valley. A valley, also called depression or dale, is a ridge area between hills and mountains. Often, rivers run through valleys.

Some valleys are U-shaped, and others are V-shaped. Still, some others fall somewhere in between – not V or U-shaped. Some of the common types of valleys include:

  • Hollows- These refer to small valleys or merely a dry river bed.
  • Box valleys: These types of valleys have steep sides. Their floors are wide and relatively level.
  • Hanging valleys: These valleys are U-shaped, and they are tributary valleys that are much higher than the main valley.
  • Glacial valleys: A valley that has been influenced by a glacial process.
  • Rift valleys: Results from some form of surface tectonic activity on the earth’s surface.
  • Tunnel valleys: These are U-shaped, and they form by sub-glacial erosion of waters; Tunnel valleys can go up to 62 miles in length.

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4. Desert Terrain

desert terrain

A desert is a piece of land with no or little vegetation, mostly due to factors such as lack of water, salt poisoning, or extreme soil. Most deserts contain miles of bare rocks and other miles of half-baked earth.

A desert terrain typically means an inhabitable area or a deserted place. Since most of them receive very little water, most become inhabitable unless the location is close to a constant water source.

While most deserts are scorching, not all of them are. Others are extremely cold.

There are four major types of deserts, including:

  • Arid deserts are also called Hot and Dry Deserts. Temperatures in these deserts are warm and dry all year long. Typical examples are the Sahara desert in Africa and the Mojave Desert in the Southwest of the US.
  • Semi-arid deserts – These are a bit cooler than the arid ones. They experience long and dry summers but also have winters and a bit of rainfall.
  • Coastal Deserts – These are more humid than all other types of deserts.  Rainfall is rare, but heavy fogs blow on the desert from the coast. A classic example is the Atacama Desert of Chile in South America.
  • Cold Deserts – These deserts are also dry, but unlike other types of deserts, they have extremely low temperatures. A good example is the Antarctic desert. In areas such as the Arctic and Poland, some places have deserts that remain chilly and have moderate temperatures all year long. These deserts receive rainfall once in a while.

Some deserts have oil springs, and others are covered in salt. Drilling of oil springs and mining of salt are some of the most lucrative ventures for people living in those areas.

Dunes are also prevalent in some types of deserts. These are small hills of loosely laying materials, usually sand. An interesting fact unknown to most people is that deserts can shrink, expand, or move.

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5. Open Terrain

open terrain

Open terrain is some of the most common types of terrain on earth. They cover flat parcels of land, open country, and open ground, free from buildings, trees, or any other obstructing structures to a person’s view.

Typical examples of open terrain include farmland and grassland. It also represents the areas cleared near airports and airstrips purposes.

Some open terrains are used during official functions such as military maneuver as they are open and easy to perform in.

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6. Glacier

glacier terrain

Glaciers are huge masses of ice. They stay that way throughout and can survive like that for years. You can find glaciers in the Antarctic, Greenland, and some areas in the higher regions of the Arctic.

Just like rivers or lava, glaciers flow consistently, albeit at a slower pace.

And, glaciers can produce glacial earthquakes. Nobody knows why these earthquakes occur, but it’s believed that these incidences are on the rise in recent years due to adverse climate change.

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7. Hills

hills terrain

A hill is a piece of land rising to a peak or above sea level. They look similar to mountains, only that they are not as steep and are lower.

Two distinct features of hills include:

  •         They are not as steep as mountains and are easier to climb
  •         They are considered to have 2000 feet or less

Hills form when sediments are deposited there or eroded, and they are covered in grass, trees, and others have little to no vegetation.

Armies mostly use hills for hiding. Due to their height, many military troops construct fortresses on top of the hills.

Most hilly places are not fit for agricultural practices, and that’s because of challenges such as drainage problems, soil erosion, or even plowing difficulty.

Luckily, people have found solutions for these challenges, such as contour plowing, which has been practiced in sloping areas.

Some common hill types include Butte, Brae, Drumlin, Kuppe, Mesa, and Mima mounds.

See Related: What is Lake Erosion?

8. Mountain Terrain

mountain terrain

Mountains are similar to hills, only that they have higher elevations. Any land elevation that goes beyond 2000 feet is considered a mountain. Mountains are steeper than hills, and they usually form through volcanic activities.

The tallest mountain in the world is Mount Everest, with over 29,000 feet in height. The tallest one in North America is the Denali Mountain in Alaska, with over 20,000 feet in height.

Experts measure the height of the mountains differently. Some estimate how high they are from the very bottom to the peak, and other measures their elevation above sea level.

9. Forest

forest terrain

Forests cover a third of the entire earth’s surface. A forest is an area of land that is almost entirely covered in trees and experiences colder or more temperate climates. It’s among the several types of terrain on earth that are full of life – from wildlife, humans, and various vegetation.

The national government expressly reserves forests in most countries. These forests are governed by special laws and are mostly used as national parks and reserves. 

Most forests are sparsely settled, and you can even find towns and small villages there. In most cases, professional foresters are paid by governments to manage forests.

They are different types of forests, including jungles or tropical rainforest, seasonally dry forest, temperate forest, and temperate rainforest.

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10. Ocean

types of terrain: ocean

Oceans form the largest terrain on earth. They are large saline water bodies, which cover roughly 70% of the earth’s surface. In fact, 97% of the earth’s water comes from the oceans.

Some people use the word ‘sea’ and ‘ocean’ interchangeably, but they have a few differences. A sea is smaller than an ocean and has land on almost all its sides.

Oceans influence the different weather conditions and climates on earth.  Over 230,000 known species dwell in the oceans, and since most are still unexplored, that number could go up.

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11. River

types of terrain-river

A river is a large stream of water that flows in a channel into another river, a lake, or a sea. Permanent streams of water, canals, and seasonal water bodies are all types of rivers.

A river starts as a spring or some standing water body and consists of numerous tributaries that keep feeding it until it ends up in a large water body like an ocean or sea. Even human-made and human-engineered tributaries are still rivers.

Some rivers end up in wetlands, or they disappear underground. Rivers have been used since time immemorial for irrigation and as sources of drinking water.

Nile River is 6,695 km in length and is the longest river in the world. Amazon River is the second-largest and longest at roughly 6,437 km in length.

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12. Swamp

types of terrain-swamp

Swamps, also called saltmarshes or bogs, are types of wetland terrains. They are areas that have both solid land and shallow water bodies.

Swamps are challenging to navigate unless you have a flatboat. They form in almost any area that receives moderate to excess rainfall.

Swamps move slowly and are commonly covered by different vegetation types. Most contain large grasses, reeds, sedge, heather, myrtles, and even small trees protruding out of the water. Humans use reeds to craft various items.

Cypress and hardwood trees sometimes grow in swamps.

There are two main types of swamps: saltwater, found in the coastal areas, and freshwater swamps found inland.

A few edible crops can thrive in freshwater swamps, including rice, and some swamps also have fish.

There are dangerous creatures that live in the swamps, which might make it risky for people to use the swamps. Some of the animals living in swamps include leeches and mosquitoes.

Also, some people develop skin problems when they live in swampy areas.

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