What does a Topographer do?

D. Jeffress

A topographer is a geology and geography expert who surveys pieces of land and creates highly accurate representations. He or she utilizes sophisticated computer equipment to ensure precise measurements of the elevation, location, shape, and contours of a particular area. Many topographers work for government and private research institutions to study Earth's surface features. Professionals may also be employed by oil corporations, land development firms, and engineering companies to provide reliable, practical information about drilling and construction sites.

Some topographers study the surface of the Moon.
Some topographers study the surface of the Moon.

A research topographer conducts careful field studies to map mountains, valleys, lakes, glaciers, and even ocean floors. He or she relies on advanced technologies, such as global positioning system (GPS) devices, laser sights, radar systems, and aerial cameras. Topographers enter data into computer simulation programs to create precise 3-D representations of landforms. Using their findings, professionals are able to track changes over time and learn how certain features were formed. Many researchers split their time between field observations, research, and instructing students at universities.

A topographer may hold a degree in cartography.
A topographer may hold a degree in cartography.

Some researchers who have expert knowledge of astronomy study the surfaces of planets, moons, stars, asteroids, and other faraway bodies. They make use of powerful telescopes and data from satellites to identify peaks, valleys, craters, volcanoes, and many other prominent features. When a topographer cannot get a clear view or image, he or she can still identify certain properties by analyzing shadows and orbital patterns. Like other types of research topographers, astrology experts are usually employed by specialized government institutions, private laboratories, and universities.

A topographer maps mountains and valleys via careful field studies.
A topographer maps mountains and valleys via careful field studies.

A topographer may also work as a consultant for companies that specialize in oil exploration or construction. Topographers at oil companies typically work alongside geologists and oceanographers to pinpoint the location of oil deposits with GPS devices, measure their width, and decide how far underground the company must drill. Land development and civil engineering firms often work with topographers to determine the best methods of excavating sites and incorporating the natural contours of the land into project designs.

A college degree is necessary to become a topographer in most settings. The majority of working professionals hold at least bachelor's degrees in geography, geology, or cartography. A doctoral degree is often needed if an individual wants to conduct independent research or teach at a university. College courses in topography and closely-related subjects allow students to familiarize themselves with different tools and techniques used in the field. Most new topographers begin their careers as assistants to established professionals to gain practical experience and build their credentials.

A research topographer conducts careful field studies in order to map different areas.
A research topographer conducts careful field studies in order to map different areas.

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Discussion Comments


@MissCourt - Astrological topography is kind of a scientific hobby, but okay. I'm not sure a 11 year old would be able to map shadows and such – that's tough stuff.

I'm sure your son is really smart – especially since he likes this kind of stuff – but you both will probably need to study some thick textbooks to really understand topography and astrological topography.

Like with topography, you need a pretty darn good set of tools. I think that maybe a Orion SkyQuest XTi10 might be a good choice. My uncle has one for his astrology and satellite stuff and he loves it. That telescope can show you the landscape pretty clearly.


I was interested in doing some astrological topography with my son as a hobby. He actually loved his geology class and asked me about it. His teacher was very enthusiastic about it and I guess some of that transferred to my son.

So my question is: does anyone know a good brand for telescopes? I know I'm going to have to spend a lot of money, but we need one that can capture shadows.

I'm pretty new to astronomy, but I've done lots of geology. My son is 11 years old so he will be able to use a telescope.


@amsden2000 - A lot of parents want their kids to do jobs like being a policemen -- it isn't just the school idea. Plus, this is a small niche to fill. There are only around 11,000 people doing topographer jobs in the United States right now.

I took a lot of geology in college, but it was just for fun. I think that astrological topographers have awesome jobs. I watched a TV show about the moon and it covered how it was mapped and scanned.

Just like you said though -- it must take a really long time to break into that profession. Probably 8 years of college and a ton of assistant work study. It's probably worth it – considering that you can make around $60,000USD a year as a topographer. Maybe I should change careers.


It's amazing how you never hear about jobs like this when you're growing up. You always hear about being firemen or astronauts, I think schools should focus more on jobs that aren't mainstream. Being a topographer sounds like a fascinating job.

Since it requires a college degree to get a topographer job -- schools should start interests in jobs like this early on. I took geology classes in high school and it was fascinating stuff -- but no one encouraged me to get a job in the field. It was more of a "now you know, now your done" kind of thing.

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