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Geological Survey, 345 Middlefield Road, Menlo Park, California


Elevation-Relief Ratio, Hypsometric Integral, and

Geomorphic Area-Altitude Analysis
ABSTRACT randomly or systematically chosen sample
locale and at any map scale, without special
Mathematical proof establishes identity of emphasis on formational geomorphic pro-
hypsometric integral and elevation-relief ratio, cesses. According to Wood and Snell (i960),
two quantitative topographic descriptors de- the measure, here designated E, expresses
veloped independently of one another for the relative proportion of upland to lowland
entirely different purposes. Operationally, within a sample region, and is defined
values of both measures are in excellent agree-
ment for arbitrarily bounded topographic Mean elevation Min. elevation
samples, as well as for low-order fluvial water- Max. elevation Min. elevation '^
sheds. By using a point-sampling technique
rather than planimetry, elevation-relief ratio In two extensive investigations of terrain ge-
(defined as mean elevation minus minimum ometry (Wood and Snell, I960; Pike, 1963),
elevation divided by relief) is calculated man- E was obtained, respectively, from 9 and 19
ually in about a third of the time required for evenly spaced elevations arranged within cir-
the hypsometric integral. cular sample areas with a diameter of 1 to 14
mi, depending upon the value of a large-
scale texture parameter, topographic grain.
INTRODUCTION These two studies show that topographic
The purpose of this note is to prove that samples may resemble one another with re-
two geomorphic parameters, the familiar spect to local relief, average slope, or other
hypsometric integral, and the more obscure geometric aspects, and yet vary appreciably
elevation-relief ratio, are identical, and to in appearance as demonstrated by different
demonstrate that the elevation-relief ratio is values of E. E usually ranges from 0.15 to
the more useful of the two. Since the two 0.85, with values tending to cluster between
measures are defined differently and were 0.40 and 0.60. Low values occur in terrains
conceived independently of one another for characterized by isolated relief features stand-
entirely dissimilar purposes, it is understand- ing above extensive level surfaces, whereas
able that their identity has not been widely high E values describe broad, somewhat level
recognized. Strahler (1952) formally defined surfaces broken by occasional depressions.
and examined various properties of the hypso- Since identical E values, especially between
metric integral, a parameter designed specific- 0.40 and 0.60, can represent dissimilar terrain
ally for the genetic analysis of individual types, it is necessary to refer to complemen-
fluvial watersheds. His paper can be con- tary geometric parameters to obtain a com-
sulted for further background information. prehensive and meaningful description of a
Despite potential value of the hypsometric topographic sample (see, for example, Wood
integral, here designated H, as a research and Snell, I960).
tool, the time and painstaking planimetry This multivariate approach to the classifi-
required for derivation of the measure have cation of arbitrarily bounded, small-scale
discouraged its wider use among geomor- landform samples has been applied success-
phologists. fully by Hammond (1964) in the compilation
The elevation-relief ratio was conceived by of his map, Classes of Land Surface Form in
Walter F. Wood and developed by Wood and the United States (U.S. Geological Survey,
Snell (i960) as one of six descriptive terrain 1969). One of Hammond's three quantitative
parameters designed to abstract salient geo- classification criteria, "Profile Type,"
metric characteristics of topography at any resembles the elevation-relief ratio, but with

Geological Society of America Bulletin, v. 82, p. 1079-1084, April 1971


the percentage range divided into quartiles. The high correspondence of H and E sug-
The measure is expressed as 0.50 to 0.75, or gested to the writers that the hypsometric
>0.75 of terrain slope under 8 percent being integral and the elevation-relief ratio must be
either above or below the mean elevation. identical mathematically, a unique occurrence
Hammond's four categories of profile type in relations among geomorphic descriptors.
evidently were intended to roughly measure The identity of H and E has been proven in
the same aspect of landscape geometry pre- the following formulation, which shows that
sumed by Wood and Snell (i960) to be ex- the proportion of landmass volume in any
pressed by the elevation-relief ratio. The wide region A to volume of a reference prism with
acceptance of Hammond's landform map of base area the same as that of A equals the
the United States suggests further that area- elevation-relief ratio. This proof extends the
altitude, or hypsometric, properties consti- work of Strahler (1952), who showed that
tute an important element of the landscape. the hypsometric integral, defined as the ratio
Clearly, the elevation-relief ratio is a more of area beneath the hypsometric curve to
exact estimator of this property than Ham- total graph area is equivalent to the ratio of
mond's and has the additional advantage of landmass volume of a given region to volume
expression as a single number. of a reference solid with the following rela-
tions: base area equal to base area of the land-
IDENTITY OF HYPSOMETRIC mass volume; height equal to maximum relief
INTEGRAL AND ELEVATION-RELIEF of the region. Both volumes are computed
RATIO with base considered as a plane at the mini-
Previous work (Pike, 1964) suggested that mum elevation of the region.
elevation-relief ratio and hypsometric integral Let N = number of sample points in the
were similar. During the present investiga- region,
tion, identity of the two measures was first M = number of distinct elevation
demonstrated empirically and then proven values,
mathematically. The hypothesis was verified hi = elevation values, i = 1,... M,
empirically using 64 finite samples of point hmax = maximum elevation in region
elevations which represent volume percent- with area A,
h m in = minimum elevation in region
ages of topography in the same way Chayes" with area A,
(1956) point sampling of mineralogic con- fi = frequency of elevation value h i;
stituents estimates volume percentage com- A = area of base of sample region or
position of rocks. Values of E and H were drainage basin,
calculated by a Fortran IV program written V, = volume of landmass, and
for the IBM 360/30 computer. E was ob- Vr = volume of reference solid.
tained directly from the Wood formula Since fj/N represents the ratio of number of
(equation l); H was calculated by deriving points at elevation h; to total number of
the hypsometric curve and then integrating sample points, the fraction of landmass area
the area under the curve. Program input con- at elevation h; is inferred to be fj/N'A, with
sists of topographic elevations usually read this estimate increasing in validity as N in-
to at least the nearest 0.5 contour interval creases. It follows that the landmass volume
and arranged in an evenly spaced square of the area at elevation h; is
matrix. We have used a 21 X 21 sampling
grid, with the 441 elevations separated from V,. = . A ( h i - h m i n ) . (2)
one another along rows and columns by 0.1
in. The small sample interval and large sample Thus, the hypsometric integral, H, is
size insure adequa te representation of virtually 2
all topographic types represented on large- v 4 A(hi - h min ) (3)
scale contour maps. For the 64 sample topo- Vr A(h max - h min )
graphic matrices, drawn largely from 1:24,000
U.S. Geological Survey topographic quad- Sf h
i i ~ h
min ' Zfi
rangles, the maximum difference between H -- (4)
and E is 0.008, and the mean of absolute
values of the differences is only 0.002. Of Since
the 64 values (of H-E), 27 were zero, 28
positive, and 9 negative. (5)

and (E-Hp) tend to be predominantly positive,

but the sample is too small to establish this
conclusively; the average difference between
the two sets of values is 0.009.
H = L M ! L _ _ = E. (7) Reducing the number of elevations used to
obtain E from 441 to between 40 and 50 has
not degraded the parameter's accuracy. Each
DISCUSSION E value was calculated in about 15 min, each
Provided adequate sampling procedure is planimetric H value required about 45 min.
followed, the elevation-relief ratio, E, can be Larger and more irregular watersheds require
substituted for the planimetric hypsometric more time to planimeter than do simpler
integral, H p , in morphometric analysis and basins but do not increase the time or effort
landform description. To show that values of needed to gather 40 to 50 elevations for a
the area-altitude quantity are essentially in- reliable value of E.
dependent of the technique used to calculate The elevation-relief ratio is not the first
them in practice, we generated values of E parameter sought as an equivalent to the
by computer and values of H from planimetry hypsometric integral. Chorley and Morley
for 10 of the 64 sample areas used previously. (1959) derived a simplified approximation of
The point-sample technique, using 441 ele- the hypsometric integral in a previous effort
vations, yields values of E similar to values of to reduce the tedium inherent in the calcula-
H derived from planimetry; the mean abso- tion of the measure. Their technique requires
lute difference between the two sets of values that the planimetric outline of a drainage
is 0.010. Differences between the 10 pairs of basin be approximated by a lemniscate loop.
values are neither predominantly positive nor Unfortunately, many fluvial watersheds, espe-
predominantly negative and are attributed to cially those developed upon recent glacial
both the accuracy with which planimetered deposits or in subhumid climatic regimes, do
values of H wete determined and the ac- not lend themselves to approximation by
curacy of the computer values of E. Further such a simple geometric form. Also, values
operational comparisons of E and H p with of the parameter derived by Chorley and
regard to precision and accuracy lie beyond Morley do not correlate directly with the
the scope of the present paper. planimetric hypsometric integral, although
The elevation-relief ratio requires no te- the deviation is fairly constant. However, the
dious planimetry, but rather only three elevation-relief ratio is identical to the hypso-
numbers obtained quickly from a contour metric integral and does not require fitting
map: maximum elevation, minimum eleva- each drainage basin with a lemniscate loop.
tion, and the average elevation of ^he topo- Additionally, the work of Tanner (1959) sug-
graphic sample. The first two values are de- gested that the skewness in a frequency dis-
termined rapidly by inspection; the third is tribution of topographic elevations is com-
calculated from a suitable sample of eleva- parable to the elevation-relief ratio. To test
tions, which must be spaced as evenly as the this hypothesis, the IBM 360/30 was pro-
shape of the sample region or drainage basin grammed to calculate a measure of skewness
will permit so the point-sampling technique from the 441 elevations used previously to
will correctly represent the terrain configura- determine values of E and H. Results show
tion. Experience has shown that a sample of that although E and skewness of elevation
40 to 50 elevations will insure accuracy of E are closely related, skewness is a poorer pre-
to, on the average, 0.01, the value to which dictor of the hypsometric integral than even
area-altitude parameters customarily are read. the hypsometric approximation. Finally,
The elevation-relief ratio can be computed Meier (1954) should be credited with having
rapidly for even the most irregular-shaped recognized the problem when it first became
drainage basins. The sample elevations are evident. His published abstract states that
obtained by positioning a rectangular sample "Strahler's 'hypsometric integral' can be re-
grid of dots over the basin in such a way that placed by the simplet parameter of mean
40 to 50 dots fall within the watershed. Twelve (drainage basin) height, expressed as a frac-
drainage basins were selected to illustrate tion of the total (basin) relief." Although
applicability of the elevation-relief ratio to this parameter is, of course, the elevation-
fluvial watersheds. The resulting values of relief ratio, Meier's abstract furnishes no de-

tails showing eithet equivalence of hypso- addition to that adopted for the previous formu-
metric integral and mean basin height or lation:
tests of mean height on topographic maps. h = the altitude of a topographic elevation,
Meier's unpublished 1957 manuscript (1970, h = mean elevation, and
written commun.) does contain a mathe- R = relief, or (h max - h min ).
matical statement of what needed to be proved Let F be the probability density function of h,
and discusses the properties of mean basin in A. The elevation-relief ratio, E, is defined as
height. h max
Previously, geomorphologists have been hF (h) dh - h min __ (1)
reluctant to work with hypsometric analysis / hm[n = h - h min
because of the requisite time-consuming and hmax hmin R
tedious planimetry. The present study has
demonstrated that this objection no longer To define the hypsometric function, we need
first to discuss a proportion-of-relief variable,
is valid and suggests that an area-altitude r, defined by
property, as expressed by the elevation-relief h -
,, -. - h
ratio, is practicable in description, analysis, r(h) =
and interpretation of topographic geometry. "max R
Thus, r(h min ) = 0, r(h *) = 1. (3)
Let f(r) be the probability density function of r,
It is a pleasure to acknowledge various that is,
individuals who contributed materially to dh
this investigation. J. F. McCauley and H. J. f(r) - F(h) dr (4)
Moore, U.S. Geological Survey; S. A. The hypsometric function is g(r) = proportion
Schumm, Colorado State University; D. K. of area A containing elevations greater than h.
McMacken, Northern Arizona University; More formally,
and R. L. Shreve, University of California,
critically read various drafts of the manu- g(r) = PfMdr. (5)
script. W. J. Rozema and H. J. Moore gen- Jt
erously contributed the simplified proof of The hypsometric integral, H, is
the identity of E and H. L. E. Middlestorb,
while a temporary employee of the U.S. Geo-
logical Survey, digitized the sample topo-
fraphic matrices. This work was done on
Integrating by parts,
ehalf of the National Aeronautics and Space
Administration under Contract W-12,388 as
one phase of the Lunar Terrain Analysis and (7)
Trafficability Project of the U.S. Geological
An alternative proof shows that the hypso- (8)
metric integral, as defined by the hypsometric
curve itself^ is the same as the elevation-relief
ratio. This formulation is more complex than
the first, but also is more direct, as it does not
have to rely upon prior assumptions concerning (9)
Strahler's relation between ratio of landmass
volume and ratio of areas from the hypsometric
graph. As this proof embodies some concepts (10)
from probability and statistics not considered
previously in connection with either the eleva- = , by a change of variables, and using
tion-relief ratio or the hypsometric integral, we equality (4),
have revised the notation to better accommo-
date the present approach. Both parameters are
redefined in these terms, and the reader can
compare the new definitions with the originals
/h. *<"> I <">

to assure himself of their identity. For this = , since h = h m i ,, + r R , ~ -= R, (12)

proof, we shall use the following notation in

Vol. 65, p. 1283-1284, 1954.

(13) Pike, R. J. Landform regions of southern New
R T Englanda quantitative delimitation:
(14) M.A. thesis, Clark Univ., Worcester, Mass.,
80 p., 1963.

hF(h)dh - h min

= Lf fh- hF(h)dr -

Jh :

h min

Pike, R. J. Some morphometric properties of
the lunar surfacea preliminary investiga-
tion from lunar aeronautical charts: Cornell
Aeronautical Lab. Rep. No. VS-1985-C-1,
Buffalo, New York, 112 p., 1964.
Strahler, A. M. Hypsometric (area-altitude
h i
n h (16) curve) analysis of erosional topography:
= E. Geol. Soc. Amer., Bull., Vol. 63, p. 1117-
R 1142, 1952.
Thus, we see that H = r = E. Tanner, W. F. Examples of departure from the
gaussian in geomorphic analysis: Amer. J.
REFERENCES CITED Sci., Vol. 257, p. 458-460, 1959.
U.S. Geological Survey. Classes of land-sur-
Chayes, Felix. Petrographic modal analysis face form: Sheet No. 62, National Atlas of
an elementary statistical appraisal: John the United States, scale 1:7,500,000, 1969.
Wiley & Sons, Inc., 113 p., New York, Wood, W. F.; and Snell, J. B. A quantitative
1956. system for classifying landforms: U.S. Army
Chorley, R. J.; and Morley, L. S. D. A Natick Lab., Tech. Rep. EP-124, Natick,
simplified approximation for the hypso- Massachusetts, 20 p., 1960.
metric integral: J. Geol., Vol. 67, p. 566-
Hammond, E. H. Analysis of properties in 26, 1970
landform geography: an application to REVISED MANUSCRIPT RECEIVED NOVEMBER
broad-scale landform mapping: in New 30, 1970
approaches to the geography ofthe United PUBLICATION AUTHORIZED BY THE DIRECTOR,
States: Ass. Amer. Geogr., Ann., Vol. 54, U.S. GEOLOGICAL SURVEY
Meier, M. F. Area-altitude graph of a mature OF MATHEMATICS, UNIVERSITY OF WASH-
drainage basin: Geol. Soc. Amer., Bull., INGTON, SEATTLE, WASHINGTON 98105