Journal of Geographical Sciences ›› 2021, Vol. 31 ›› Issue (3): 456-476.doi: 10.1007/s11442-021-1853-9

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Geomorphology-oriented digital terrain analysis: Progress and perspectives

XIONG Liyang1,2,3(), TANG Guoan1,2,3,*(), YANG Xin1,2,3, LI Fayuan1,2,3   

  1. 1. School of Geography, Nanjing Normal University, Nanjing 210023, China
    2. Key Laboratory of Virtual Geographic Environment (Nanjing Normal University), Ministry of Education, Nanjing 210023, China
    3. Jiangsu Center for Collaborative Innovation in Geographical Information Resource Development and Application, Nanjing 210023, China
  • Received:2020-10-08 Accepted:2020-12-05 Online:2021-03-25 Published:2021-05-25
  • Contact: TANG Guoan;
  • About author:Xiong Liyang, Associate Professor, specialized in digital terrain analysis. E-mail:
  • Supported by:
    National Natural Science Foundation of China(41930102);National Natural Science Foundation of China(41971333);National Natural Science Foundation of China(41771415)


Digital terrain analysis (DTA) is one of the most important contents in the research of geographical information science (GIS). However, on the basis of the digital elevation model (DEM), many problems exist in the current research of DTA in geomorphological studies. For instance, the current DTA research appears to be focused more on morphology, phenomenon, and modern surface rather than mechanism, process, and underlying terrain. The current DTA research needs to be urgently transformed from the study of landform morphology to one focusing on landform process and mechanism. On this basis, this study summarizes the current research status of geomorphology-oriented DTA and systematically reviews and analyzes the research about the knowledge of geomorphological ontology, terrain modeling, terrain derivative calculation, and terrain analytical methods. With the help of DEM data, DTA research has the advantage of carrying out geomorphological studies from the perspective of surface morphology. However, the study of DTA has inherent defects in terms of data expression and analytic patterns. Thus, breakthroughs in basic theories and key technologies are necessary. Moreover, scholars need to realize that DTA research must be transformed from phenomenon to mechanism, from morphology to process, and from terrain to landform. At present, the research development of earth science has reached the critical stage in which the DTA research should focus more on geomorphological ontology. Consequently, this study proposes several prospects of geomorphology-oriented DTA from the aspects of value-added DEM data model, terrain derivatives and their spatial relations, and macro-terrain analysis. The study of DTA based on DEM is at a critical period along with the issue on whether the current GIS technology can truly support the development of geography. The research idea of geomorphology-oriented DTA is expected to be an important exploration and practice in the field of GIS.

Key words: digital terrain analysis, geomorphology, ontology, digital elevation model, terrain derivative, geographical information science