Landscape Lenses

Physical Landscape : Topography

Topography is the configuration of the earth’s surficial features. This includes relief and the relative positions of natural and human-made features. Large natural landforms, such as mountain chains and oceans, influence hydrology, climate, and glaciology over entire continents. Smaller scale relief, like that created by surficial sediments or human development, will affect the temperature, moisture and hydrology of the local environment. At a large scale relief determines the altitude at which an environment exists, and at a small scale it affects the slope and aspect of the local landscape.

Slope and slope aspect (the direction which the slope faces) are important features of topography. A steep slope or cliff will drain more quickly and retain less organic material than a flatter area in the same region. So on steeper areas we can expect less soil to develop and consequently fewer plants to thrive. Of course there are always exceptions, and in Vermont, you often find a thick fringe of Northern white cedar growing on well-drained rocky slopes. Slope aspect directly affects an area’s exposure to sunlight and precipitation. We can see the affect of this on Vermont’s landscape when we find more southerly species, such as red oak, competing well on drier, warmer south and west facing hillsides.

Because of the important role that topography plays in shaping the physical and biological environment, topographic maps are an excellent resource for interpreting the landscape. A look into a topographic map of Vermont will show that the Champlain Valley is comparatively very flat compared to the rest of Vermont. Right in Burlington, however, we know that the steep rise from Lake Champlain has played an important role in shaping how humans have built on the landscape. It is not until you reach the top of Main Street that the large, wide, flat expanses of the Champlain Valley become clear. While we see small hills (most of which we still call "mountains," such as Mt. Philo, just south of Burlington), the topography is overwhelmingly flat, creating ideal conditions for expansive farming.

Within the city limits, there is still a large array of topographic relief. Some topographic features aren't as clear anymore. Do you know about the ravine that ran right through downtown? In the forests like Centennial woods, microtopography plays a key role in where you will find hemlock groves and marshes. And the steeply paved roads of Burlington give adrenaline rushes to college students on skateboards and are a headache for city planners trying to control stormwater runoff.