Geography GIS and Remote Sensing Applications in Geomorphology
Yingkui Li
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 July 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199874002-0219


Geomorphology is the science of studying landforms, landscapes, and their related processes, including the description, materials, classification, origin, evolution, and history of earth/planetary surfaces. Geographic information system (GIS) is a computer-based system used for collection, maintenance, storage, retrieval, analysis, and distribution of geographic data and information. A closely related technique to GIS is remote sensing (RS), the noncontact recording of electromagnetic spectrum of earth/planetary surfaces based on satellite-, aircraft-, or ground-based sensors to measure, detect, and classify ground objects. GIS and remote sensing have been integrated in many geomorphological studies to quantify surface processes and landforms. GIS/RS has been strongly linked with the methodology and concepts in geomorphology since its initial development. With the continual development of GIS and RS techniques, GIS/RS has been widely used to classify landform and landscape units, extract specific landform features, quantify process-landform relationships, and detect geomorphic changes. In particular, the combination of GIS/RS with digital elevation models (DEMs) has become one of the most common approaches for geomorphological research, especially with the early-21st-century progress in using LiDAR (light detection and ranging) and UAS (unmanned aircraft systems) to obtain high-resolution DEMs. A new discipline, geomorphometry, have been developed to quantify landforms and topography at various spatial scales on the basis of mathematical, statistical, and image-processing techniques. This article first includes a section focusing on the use of GIS/RS in general landform and landscape classification and then categorizes literature into a variety of subfields of geomorphology in which GIS/RS has been applied to solve geomorphological issues. These subfields include Glacial Geomorphology, Watershed and Fluvial Geomorphology, Hillslope Processes and Landslides, Coastal Geomorphology, Karst Geomorphology, Aeolian Geomorphology, and Tectonic Geomorphology. Some subfields, such as volcanic geomorphology and planetary geomorphology, are not included, but the methods and principles summarized in this article can be applied to these subfields.

General Overviews

The applications of GIS/RS in geomorphology have been summarized in many review papers and edited books. For example, Oguchi and Wasklewicz 2011 and Otto, et al. 2018 provide general overviews of using GIS to study various geomorphological issues. Walsh, et al. 1998 discusses the applications of GIS/RS to investigate the scale, pattern, and process perspectives of landscape relationships. Bishop and Shroder 2004 provides a collection of studies on the integration of GIS with geomorphology in mountain systems. Bishop 2013 is a book volume to introduce the applications of GIS/RS technologies to a variety of geomorphological issues. In terms of geomorphometry, Mark 1975 provides a review of a set of geomorphometric parameters and the relationships among these parameters for terrain analysis. Hengl and Reuter 2008 introduces the concepts and software packages to process digital elevation models (DEMs), extract topographic parameters and objects, and apply topographic parameters and objects in various geomorphological issues. In the early 21st century, the advances of high-resolution DEMs based on light detection and ranging (LiDAR) and unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) have provided new opportunities to study geomorphic processes. Tarolli 2014 provides a review of the potential of using high-resolution DEMs to investigate geomorphic processes on natural and engineered landscapes. Fonstad, et al. 2013 introduces structure from motion, a rapid and inexpensive photogrammetric approach (mainly based on UAS-collected photos), to generate high‐resolution DEMs for geomorphic research. Lin, et al. 2013 presents a novel geographic analysis tool, Virtual Geographic Environments (VGEs), to visualize and solve geographic problems.

  • Bishop, Michael P., ed. Treatise on Geomorphology. Vol. 3, Remote Sensing and GIScience in Geomorphology. San Diego, CA: Academic Press, 2013.

    A collection of papers in applying remote sensing and GIS technologies to a variety of geomorphological issues, such as geomorphic change detection, land cover dynamics, geomorphological mapping, soil erosion modeling, and natural-hazard assessment.

  • Bishop, Michael P., and John F. Shroder Jr., eds. Geographic Information Science and Mountain Geomorphology. Chichester, UK: Praxis, 2004.

    A collection of papers on the integration of GIS with geomorphology to study various perspectives of mountain systems, including natural hazards, surface hydrology, snow and ice, climate forcing, tectonic geomorphology, and landscape evolution.

  • Fonstad, Mark A., James T. Dietrich, Brittany C. Courville, Jennifer L. Jensen, and Patrice E. Carbonneau. “Topographic Structure from Motion: A New Development in Photogrammetric Measurement.” Earth Surface Processes and Landforms 38.4 (2013): 421–430.

    DOI: 10.1002/esp.3366

    A paper to introduce structure from motion, a rapid and inexpensive photogrammetric approach, to create high‐resolution digital elevation models for geomorphic applications and demonstrate its applicability in Pedernales River in Texas.

  • Hengl, Tomislav, and Hannes I. Reuter, eds. Geomorphometry: Concepts, Software, Applications. Developments in Soil Science 33. Amsterdam: Elsevier, 2008.

    An edited book with a collection of instructions and manuals on how to use various software packages to process DEMs, extract topographic parameters and objects, and apply topographic parameters and objects in soil, agricultural, environmental, and earth sciences.

  • Lin, Hui, Min Chen, Guonian Lu, et al. “Virtual Geographic Environments (VGEs): A New Generation of Geographic Analysis Tool.” Earth-Science Reviews 126 (November 2013): 74–84.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.earscirev.2013.08.001

    A review paper to introduce a new generation of geographic analysis tool, VGEs, in visualizing geographic world and solving geographic problems. This paper also discusses the limitations of current VGEs and directions for future research.

  • Mark, David M. “Geomorphometric Parameters: A Review and Evaluation.” Geografiska Annaler: Series A, Physical Geography 57.3–4 (1975): 165–177.

    DOI: 10.1080/04353676.1975.11879913

    An important paper to review and define various geomorphometric parameters, including texture, grain, relief, slope, and hypsometry, and to examine the relationships among these parameters for terrain analysis.

  • Oguchi, Takashi, and Thad A. Wasklewicz. “Geographic Information Systems in Geomorphology.” In The SAGE Handbook of Geomorphology. Edited by Kenneth J. Gregory and Andrew S. Goudie, 227–245. London: SAGE, 2011.

    DOI: 10.4135/9781446201053.n13

    A review of the historical development of GIS applications in geomorphology, and case studies in topography visualization, basic morphometric analysis, stream networks and watersheds, landform classification, soil erosion, landslide susceptibility modeling, and geomorphic-change detection.

  • Otto, Jan-Christoph, Günther Prasicek, Jan Henrik Blöthe, and Lothar Schrott. “GIS Applications in Geomorphology.” In Comprehensive Geographic Information Systems. Vol. 2, GIS Applications for Environment and Resources. Edited by Georg Bareth, Chunqiao Song, and Yan Song, 81–111. Boston: Elsevier, 2018.

    DOI: 10.1016/B978-0-12-409548-9.10029-6

    An overview of GIS applications in geomorphology, including the development of GIS analysis tools and geomorphological indices and the demonstration of these tools and indices from a study area in the European Alps.

  • Tarolli, Paolo. “High-Resolution Topography for Understanding Earth Surface Processes: Opportunities and Challenges.” Geomorphology 216 (1 July 2014): 295–312.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.geomorph.2014.03.008

    A useful review paper of then-recent progress on high-resolution topographic analyses focusing on natural and engineered landscapes, with a summary of potential research opportunities and a discussion of limitations and future challenges.

  • Walsh, Stephen J., David R. Butler, and George P. Malanson. “An Overview of Scale, Pattern, Process Relationships in Geomorphology: A Remote Sensing and GIS Perspective.” Geomorphology 21.3–4 (1998): 183–205.

    DOI: 10.1016/S0169-555X(97)00057-3

    An important paper to discuss the use of remote sensing and GIS methodologies to investigate the scale, pattern, and process perspectives of landscape relationships within the fluvial and alpine environments.

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