What Is a Physical Feature in Geography?


Geographic physical features are naturally occurring features on the planet Earth’s topography, including landforms, bodies of water, terrains and ecosystems. In addition to physical features, geographic features may also be man-made or artificial and include engineered features and human settlements. A third category of geographic features is called cartographic features. It includes features that aren’t physical and don’t technically exist but are widely accepted and designated for reasons such as research, navigation and reference.


Landforms are physical features that a part of the Earth’s natural terrain. The four major landforms are mountains, plains, plateaus and hills. However, there are many other minors ones, including canyons, valleys, caves and buttes. Mt. Everest in Nepal is the highest landform on Earth. It’s 29,035 feet tall,

according to National Geographic. The Mariana Trench in the Pacific Ocean is the deepest landform at nearly 7 miles below sea level.  

Bodies of Water

Bodies of water are also physical features of geography, and they are considered landforms as well. They actually cover more of the planet than land does. About 71% of the Earth’s surface is some form of water,

according to the United States Geological Survey. Oceans, seas, lakes, rivers, canals and glaciers all fall under this category. Bodies of water can be salt or freshwater, and any size as long as they are permanent fixtures on the topography.  The Pacific Ocean is the largest body of water on the Earth — it contains more than half of the planet’s water and is almost twice the size of the Atlantic Ocean. 


Terrains, which are stretches of land that make a specific geographical area, usually defined by its features, may also be considered physical features. A terrain may be horizontal or vertical, and its features may impact its weather, climate and the flow of any bodies of water.  Some types of terrains are desserts, canyons, forests, swamps, tundras, hills and mountains.  


Ecosystems may also be considered physical features in geography. An ecosystem is basically an area that is a sum of many parts, including animals, plants, organisms, weather, landscapes, landforms, bodies of water and terrain.

National Geographic calls an ecosystem a “bubble of life,” though ecosystems may have both living and nonliving parts. An ecosystem might be a coral reef, a rainforest, a prairie, grassland or tundra.  

Engineered Features

While many geographical features are physical, some are actually man-made. Those include engineered features, like roads, airports, dams, buildings, bridges and railroads.  

Human Settlements  

Settlements, or communities where a group of people live, may also be considered artificial geographical features. This can include neighborhoods, towns, villages, cities, counties, townships, parishes and census designated places. 

Cartographic Features 

While cartographic features are definitely not physical features, they are a major part of the study of geography. While you can’t physically touch them and they don’t even technically exist, they are used on maps and in navigation, and they’re generally universally accepted. The equator is an example of this type of feature, as are the lines of latitude and longitude.