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What is the difference between lake and pond; mountain and hill; or river and creek?

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Welcome to CoreFacts, where we're always short on time and big on science. I'm Steve Sobieszczyk. Let's get to today's question.

What is the difference between lake and pond; mountain and hill; or river and creek?

There are no official definitions for generic terms as applied to geographic features. Most descriptions are ambiguous at best. The Geographic Names Information System database (GNIS) utilizes 63 broad categories of feature types originally defined solely to simplify the query and retrieval of similar features from the database.

For example, a lake is classified in the GNIS as a "natural body of inland water," a definition that may not apply in other contexts. There are 54 other generic terms with characteristics similar to a lake, and all are classified as a lake, including features called ponds. It might be generally agreed that a pond is smaller than a lake, but even this is not always true. Remember the Atlantic Ocean is often affectionately known as "the Pond."

As for mountains and hills...the British Ordnance Survey once defined a mountain as having 1,000 feet of elevation, anything less was a hill, but the distinction was abandoned sometime in the 1920's. There was even a movie with this as its theme in the late 1990's - The Englishman That Went Up a Hill and Down a Mountain. The U.S. Board on Geographic Names once stated that the difference between a hill and a mountain in the U.S. was 1,000 feet of local relief, but even this was abandoned in the early 1970's.

The difference between rivers and creeks is just as nebulous. All "linear flowing bodies of water" are classified as streams in the GNIS. At least 121 other generic terms fit this broad category, including creeks and rivers. Observers might contend that a creek must flow into a river, but such hierarchies do not exist in the Nation's namescape. For example, near the USGS offices in Northern Virginia, Little River flows into Goose Creek.

So what does this tell us? Broad agreement on such questions is essentially impossible, which is why there are no official feature classification standards. See, isn't science fun.

And now you know. Join us every weekday for a new CoreFact. If you have a question you think we should answer on the air, email it to us at or leave us a voicemail at 703-648-5600; don't forget long distance fees do apply.

The USGS CoreFacts is a product of the U.S. Geological Survey, Department of the Interior.

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