Much geologic and geophysical information that lies encoded within land surface form can be revealed by image processing large files of digitized elevations in fast machines and mapping the results. This convergence of computers, analytic software, data, and output devices has created exciting opportunities for automating the numerical and spatial study of topography. One recent result is the accompanying shaded relief map of the conterminous 48 states.
A shaded relief image of topography mimics a cloud-free monochrome aerial photograph taken at low Sun. Gray tones represent different terrain slopes and azimuths calculated from adjacent elevations stored in a uniform grid, or digital elevation model (DEM). Sun elevation and direction can be varied to generate complementary views of the same area. The synoptic coverage of these computer images is a major advantage; unlike a photograph, image extent is limited only by size of the elevation array. Shaded relief maps also are free of the distortion found in radar images and of the vegetation and cultural features that mask topographic form on Landsat and SPOT images.
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