EarthWord – Prominence

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Prominence is a term in topography that refers to the elevation of a summit relative to its surrounding terrain. This is different from its overall elevation, which measures the height of the summit above sea level.

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 Probing the snow pack at the highest point in North America
Blaine Horner of CompassData probing the snow pack at the highest point in North America along with setting up Global Position System equipment for precise summit elevation data. Credit: Blaine Horner, CompassData

Definition:

  • Prominence is a term in topography that refers to the elevation of a summit relative to its surrounding terrain. This is different from its overall elevation, which measures the height of the summit above sea level.
  • For instance, if you were to hike to the summit of the Matterhorn, in Switzerland, you would stand at an elevation of 14,692 feet, but you would have climbed only 3,419 feet of prominence. This is because the surrounding Alps are all tall mountains, so you would have started at a much higher elevation than if you had hiked up from sea level.

Etymology:

  • Prominence is derived from the Latin prominentia, which meant “jutting out.”

Use/Significance in the Earth Science Community:

  • Prominence is a key term in topography for describing the contours of mountain ranges. It’s also important in establishing the relationships between individual summits within a mountain range.

USGS Use:

  • USGS studies the elevation of summits and other topographic data as part of its National Map work. In recent news, you may have heard we updated the elevation of Denali, the tallest mountain in North America. If you want to see what topographic science looks like on the ground, check this out!

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