The ABC’s of Geographical Terms

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Learning about geography can be fun, but there are a lot of terms that your children need to know in order to understand what they are learning. To make this easier for your students, we have put together a list of the most important geographical terms in alphabetical order!

The ABCs of Geographical Terms - By Misty Leask

At the end of this list you’ll find that we’ve created a printable for you to download, so that your students can have the information they need on hand throughout their geography course.


Abrasion – The physical wearing down and grinding which happens to a surface through impact and friction by materials carried by water, air or ice.

Absolute Location – The exact spot on the Earth where something is located which can best be determined by the use of latitude and longitude angles.

Altitude – An object or points height in correlation to sea or ground level.

Aquifer – Formations of rock that store groundwater.

Archipelago – An island group that have an arc shape.

Asthenosphere – A zone in the mantle of the Earth.

Atlas – A book containing maps or charts.

Atmosphere – The Earth’s or another planets envelope of gases surrounding them.

Atmospheric Pressure – The weight of the atmosphere on a surface.


Barometer – An instrument that measures atmospheric pressure.

Barrier Island – Islands of sand that are long and narrow often running parallel to the coastline.

Bay – A sheltered body of what located in a crescent shaped coast of land.

Beach – Pebble or sandy shores found by the high and low water marks especially by the ocean.

Bedrock – Solid rock underlying loose deposits such as soil or alluvium.

Bioregion – An Earth region that is unique due to it’s distinct soil, climate, animals, etc.

Biosphere – The Earth’s regions and it’s atmosphere which are occupied by living organisms.

Boundary – A dividing life that marks the limits of a particular area.

Butte – A steep sided and flat topped isolated hill.


Canyon – A valley with steep sides whose depth is much greater than it’s width.

Canal – An artificial waterway to allow boats or ships passage inland or for water irrigation purposes.

Cape – The point or extension of a piece of land extending into the water.

Cardinal Points – The four main navigational directions that are found on a compass or map. (North, South, East and West)

Cartography – The field of study for map creation.

Cave – A natural recess that is located horizontally in the Earth’s surface.

Cliff – A rock face that is tall and steep.

Coastline – The separation line between a land surface from a sea or an ocean.

Compass – A navigation instrument that uses the magnetic field of the Earth to determine direction.

Compass Rose – A circle printed on a map or chart showing the principal directions.

Continent – Continuous expanses of land throughout the world.

Continental Crust – The portion of the Earth’s crust that is granitic and makes up the continents.

Continental Divide – An imaginary geographical drainage divide on a continent.

Contour Line – A map line which joins points of equal height above or below sea level.

Core – The interior layer of the Earth.

Crust – The outermost solid shell of a rocky planet.


Degree – An angular unit of measure which is used to divide the spherical shape of the Earth for geographical purposes.

Delta – A piece of land that is formed at a river’s mouth where the mainstream divides into many distributaries.

Depression – A concave hollow found on the surface of the Earth.

Desert – An area that receives low precipitation.

Divide – The topographic ridge that separates drainage basins.


Elevation – A point’s height on the Earth in respect to sea level.

Emergent Coastline – Shoreline that is a result from a land rising in elevation relative to sea level.

Erosion – The removal of weathered rocks by forces such as; wind, water and ice.

Equator – The imaginary circle halfway between the North and South Pole on the Earth.

Estuary – A river’s broad and lower course affected by tides and disrupted by the sea.

Exosphere – The Earth’s atmosphere’s outermost zone.


Fall Line – The narrow geographical boundary zone which is marked between an upland region and a plain, noted by the occurrence of falls and rapids rivers and streams crossing it.

Fault – A long break in a rock.

Fissure – A crack or opening in the crust of the Earth.

Fjord – A long, narrow, deep inlet of the sea located between cliffs.


Geography – The study of the physical features of the Earth, its atmosphere and human activities.

Geosphere – The Earth’s nonliving parts; the hydrosphere, the cryosphere, the lithosphere and the atmosphere.

Glacier – A thick mass of ice which is the result of compacting snow formed by more snow accumulating than melting within a year.

Globe – A map of the Earth that is true-to-scale and round in shape.

Grid – The lines on a map or chart that represent longitude and latitude.

Gulf – A large body of water that is within a curved coastline.


Habitat – The place where an animal or plant lives.

Heterosphere – The upper layer of the atmosphere.

Hemisphere – One half of the Earth.

Homosphere – The lower layer of the atmosphere.

Hydrosphere – The oceans, lakes, rivers and streams which cover the surface of the Earth.


Infiltration – The movement and absorption of water downward into the soil.

Ionosphere – The region in the atmosphere above 50 kilometers from the surface.

Island – A piece of land that is surrounded by water.


Joint – A rock’s fracture where no movement has taken place.


Kettle Hole – A depression found in glacial deposits.


Lagoon – Seawater that is nearly cut off from the ocean by a barrier beach.

Lake – A standing body of water located on the Earth’s land masses.

Latitude – The measurement used to determine the distance north or south of the equator.

Legend – The key to the pictures or symbols used on a map.

Lithosphere – The hard outer crust shell of the Earth.

Location – An exact position on the Earth.

Longitude – The measurement used to determine the distance east or west of the prime meridian.

Lower Mantle – The layer of the Earth’s interior from 670-2,900 kilometers below the surface crust.


Mantle – The zone found between the crust and core of the Earth’s interior.

Map – A picture of a place often drawn to scale on a flat surface.

Meridian – The circular arc that connects all places of the same longitude at the poles.

Mesa – A hill that is isolated and flat topped with steep sides.

Mesosphere – An atmospheric layer located between the stratosphere and the thermosphere.


North Magnetic Pole – Where the lines of force from Earth’s magnetic field are vertical; located in the Northern Hemisphere.

North Pole – Defined by the intersection of the polar axis with the Earth’s surface whose location is in the Northern Hemisphere at 90 degrees North.


Ocean – Large bodies of salt water dividing land masses.


Permafrost – A layer of soil that is frozen permanently.

Physical Weathering – The breakdown of rock and minerals from mechanical stress.

Prime Meridian – The reference point for longitude which is an imaginary line running through Greenwich, England from north to south.



Region – A territory that has characteristics which distinguish it from other places.

River – A channel of water that is long and narrow that flows across the Earth’s surface by the functions of gravity and elevation.


Scale – The system of marks set at fixed intervals on a map which is used to indicate the proportion between the linear measurement and the actual distance on the Earth.

Sea – Part of an ocean that is found on or near a continent on the Earth.

Sea Level – The level of the surface of the ocean.

Shore – Land bordering a large body of water.

South Magnetic Pole – Where the lines of force from Earth’s magnetic field are vertical; located in the Southern Hemisphere.

South Pole – Defined by the intersection of the polar axis with the Earth’s surface whose location is in the Southern Hemisphere at 90 degrees South.

Stratopause – A thin atmospheric layer located between the stratosphere and the mesosphere.

Stratosphere – The stratosphere is an atmospheric layer which contains the ozone layer.


Tectonic Plate – A layer of the lithosphere that is extensive and moves across the surface of the Earth’s asthenosphere.

Territory – A specific portion of the surface of the Earth.

Topographic Map – A two dimensional map that uses contour lines to represent a three dimensional landscape.

Topography – A place’s physical features.

Tropic of Cancer – The imaginary northern boundary line of the tropics.

Tropic of Capricorn – The imaginary southern boundary line of the tropics.

Tundra – An arctic or subarctic treeless plain region.


Upper Mantle – Part of the Earth’s mantle layer below the base of the crust.


Valley – The low area located between mountains.

Vent – The opening on the Earth’s surface where volcanic eruptions occur.


Weathering – The breaking down of rocks which over time become soil.

Weather Map – A map that displays the physical state of the atmosphere and its circulation over the Earth.


X-axis – The horizontal axis on a graph.


Y-axis – The vertical axis on a graph.


Zonal – The movement of ocean waters or wind in a direction parallel to latitude lines.

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