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An Analysis of Terrain Classification for Long-Range Prediction of Conditions in Deserts

Author(s): C. W. Mitchell, R. Webster, P. H. T. Beckett and Barbara Clifford

Source: The Geographical Journal, Vol. 145, No. 1 (Mar., 1979), pp. 72-85
Published by: geographicalj
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Terrain classification seeks to distinguish areas of similar terrain to permit

generalizations about their character and predictions of conditions at sites
distant from those where measurements were made. A hierarchical scheme was
devised for classifying terrain, with the facet as the basic unit for practical land
management, and coarser groupings to convey more general information for
larger areas and to allow predictions about facets to be made over long distances.
The hot desert terrain ofthe world was classified using it. This study examines
the extent to which this classification achieved its purpose. Representative
classes at all levels of the classification scheme were sampled, and several soil
and other terrain properties measured at replicate sampling sites. Within-facet
variances of each property were estimated for facets with scope ranging from the
local form through each level of the hierarchy to the desert zone as a whole.
Components of variance show how each level contributes to the total within-
facet variance. Within-class variances and components of variance are also pre?
sented for the classes at all levels of the hierarchy. In general the largest contri?
butions to the total variance derive from within-facet (residual), between-
facet and between-province, in that order. Variances within local facets are
always least, and for many properties can be small enough to allow useful

People who plan to use land in ways that are different from those current usually
require information about the soil and other terrain properties. They may mount
special surveys to obtain the information, or use whatever happens to be available.
In either event the information will pertain to specific sites, which may be auger
bores, profile pits or trial plots far apart from one another. The planner, however,
is usually interested in continuous tracts of country, and therefore wishes to
predict in a spatial sense the nature ofthe terrain at many unvisited or unrecorded
sites from relatively few observations at specific sites.
Prediction may be based on the assumption that nearby sites are likely to be
similar or that sites are likely to be similar with respect to the property of current
interest if they are also alike in other respects, or both. The second is usually
assumed in practice, especially when sampling has been sparse: land is classified,
and conditions at unfamiliar sites are predicted from the information previously
obtained at any sites in the same class.
In earlier work we examined the validity of this second assumption, studying
the effectiveness of terrain classification in both temperate and hot desert climates
(Webster and Beckett, 1964; Beckett and Webster, 1965a, b; Beckett et al, 1972;
Perrin and Mitchell, 1969). Here we introduce an element ofthe first assumption,
for we are particularly concerned with the influence of distance in terrain classi?
fication. Thus, given that properties of a new site can be predicted well from those

-> Dr Mitchell is a lecturer in the Department of Geography, University of Reading,

and Barbara ClifTord a research assistant in the same Department. Dr R. Webster is with
the Soil Survey of England and Wales, Rothamsted Experimental Station, Harpenden, and
Dr P. H. T. Beckett is from the Department of Agricultural Science, University of Oxford.

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of other known sites in the same class in th

likely to be when the known sites are mor
different continents? The study extends th
desert terrain.

Classification of desert terrain

Desert terrain varies substantially from pl
in which it may be classified. However,
recognized are of two distinct types. Terrai
it is all of the same kind, i.e., it is similat in
are dunes, dune fields, mountains, and out
characteristics that enable us to recognize
class, usually having some unifying charact
and be 'location specific', to use the curren
dunes, dune fields, mountains and fans,
Karroo and Socotra. The boundaries of s
they are for the island of Socotra, or vagu
We thus have a distinction between grouping
ing according to location. The latter are act
to some extent abstractions. Whether terra
general character or because of their locati
coarseness. At the coarsest level there are the continental deserts such as the Sahara
while at the finest level there are, for example, specific kinds of sand dune or the
dunes of a particular dune field.
Clearly, anyone may define a class of terrain in any way he likes so as to generalize
usefully about that terrain. But for organizing data about large areas for both local
and long range extrapolation some more formal structure is needed. Brink et al.
(1966) considered the matter at length. Drawing on the general experience of land
resource surveys in several parts of the world, and on Linton (1951) in particular,
they outlined a formal hierarchy of terrain classes that could incorporate both
abstract types and their actual occur rences (known as local forms) at all levels.
The basic class for generalization and prediction was the land facet, or simply
facet: it was sufficiently homogeneous to be managed uniformly in moderately
intensive use in both farming and engineering. Individual occurrences of facets
are easily recognized and circumscribed. More important, however, particular
facets commonly recur with several others in characteristic and definable patterns,
termed land systems, which themselves occupy readily delimited tracts of country.
Each such tract is a local land system, and its constituent facets were themselves
regarded as local forms. Adjacent land systems contain assemblages of mainly
different facets. Nevertheless they may have sufficient in common for them to
comprise a land region. Similarly one or more adjacent land regions may con-
stitute a province, several adjacent provinces a land division, and all divisions
together make up the desert zone. These are all local forms. At the same time,
homogeneous tracts of land in different land systems, which may be very far from
one another, are often recognizable as the same basic kind of terrain?they are all
occurrences of a single abstract facet. For example, dry wash channels are wide-
spread in the desert zone, and were recognized (see below) as a single abstract
facet occurring in fans, dune fields and in mountain areas in California, Libya,
Arabia and Socotra. Table I gives brief definitions of units at each level of classi?
fication and indicates their usual extent by the scale at which they are most con-
veniently mapped. Figures 1, 2 and 3 show how the levels of classification are

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Summary definitions of terrain units

Name Definition Map scale for display

Land facet A class of land sufficiently homogeneous l:10 000to 1:80 000
that it can be managed uniformly. It may
consist of one or more distinct parcels of
terrain within a locality (a facet local form)
or of all terrain with the definitive pro?
perties anywhere (an abstract facet)

Land system A recurrent pattern of genetically l:250lmked

000to 1: 1M
land facets. Usually distinct and bounded
in a locality as a local form. Abstract land
systems consist of all occurrences of the
same recurrent pattern.

Land region One or more land systems that are 1:1M to 1:5M
adjacent or in close proximity and are
similar in lithology and surface form.

1:5M to 1:15M
Land province One or more land regions, adjacent or in
close proximity in the same large
lithological association or second order

Land division A single gross form, comprising one or 1:15M

more land provinces, expressing a
continental structure within a single major
climatic zone.

Land zone A major climatic zone consisting of one or less than 1 :15M
more land divisions.


Scheme of classification for desert terrain and the numbers of groups recognized

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related to one another and the relations between abstract classes and their local
With this hierarchical framework to guide them Perrin and Mitchell (1969)
set about classifying the terrain of the hot deserts. Information was gleaned from
over 1200 published accounts and from a systematic survey of available air photo?
graphy. Thirty-three sample areas, each covering approximately 1? square, were
examined in more detail, and field traverses were made to obtain round data. The
terrain was classified at the five levels of the hierarchy, and the numbers of classes
recognized in each category are given in Table II. Over 100 abstract land facets
were recognized in the areas examined. It was also possible to identify analogous
land systems, made up of the same patterns of recurring facets, in different parts
of the desert zone. For example, the fans from the Ibis and Mohawk Mountains of
California, the Hon Tertiary fan and Senonian hill outwash of north-western
Libya, the central plain of Abd al Kuri and the fans from the Jebel Dhanna Dome
in Arabia are all local forms of a single abstract land system?fans and bajadas.
Likewise the dissected limestone tablelands in the Jol district of Arabia have close
analogues in east Jordan, northern Algeria and Morocco that constitute an abstract
land system. At the level of land region and above, few, if any, classes obviously

or non-arid areas

Land province
Jabal Nafusah
Hammada al Hamra'
Sirte Lowlands
Hun-Bu Nujaym Trough
Jabal al Soda
Erg Ubari
Hammadat Marzuq
Erg Marzuq


Fig. 1. Land Provinces studied: Libya

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Fig. 2. Land Provinces studied: Arabian area

recurred. Each class occupied a single specific tract of country or several sepa
tracts in close proximity, and it was not possible to group them into abstract cla
on their similarity. In practice therefore all classes at region level and above a
local forms.
Table II summarizes the classification achieved for desert terrain. Note that a
particular local form of a land facet can occur only within one local land system,
and a local form of a land system only within one land region. As above however, the
abstract facet to which its local forms belong can occur in many local land systems,

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p Semi-arid
ijj or non-arid areas
_ Land province boundaries
0 Km 500

18 Colorado Plateau,
15 Texas High Plains (Pecos Valley)
16 Mexican Meseta (Altoplanice) (Colorado River Valley)
17 Sonora (incl. Salton Trough) 19 Great Basin

Fig. 3. Land Provinces studied: USA?Mexico

and hence regions, divisions and provinces, and it may occur in more than one
abstract land system. Perrin and Mitchell (1969) have described in full their survey
procedure and the classes of terrain recognized.

Value of classification for prediction and generalization

The value of a classification for prediction or generalization depends very largely
on the variation within its classes, and for quantitative variables specifically on the
within-class variance (Webster and Beckett, 1968). In creating a hierarchical
scheme of classification for terrain, there is the intention that all classes at any
particular level should be of roughly comparable variability. That is, the within-
class variance of a property at any particular level should be roughly constant
from class to class however much the classes differ in their mean values. Experience
suggests that this aim is usually achieved in practice. Therefore we may reasonably
associate an average within-class variance with each level of classification, obtained
by pooling the variances for individual classes at that level. We should expect
these variances to differ for the different levels in the hierarchy?largest in the
highest category and smallest in the lowest. We should also expect local forms of
land systems and facets to be less variable than their corresponding abstracts.
Thus the finer the level of classification and the more locally confined are its classes,
the less internally variable are its classes likely to be. Estimates of within-class
variances at each level can be obtained by sampling. However, facets are the basic
units to which information is indexed and for which predictions are made (see
Brink et al., 1966), and so it is most important to know how variable the soil is
within facets, and how the variance increases as the scope of the facets widens
from local form (within local land system) to region, province and division. These

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variances can also be estimated by appropriate sampling, and the

enabled estimates of the variances of several soil properties wit
of the hierarchy to be made for the whole desert zone.

The desert zone was sampled by choosing four main sample areas (Fig. 4),
corresponding to four land divisions within it, and choosing sites within them to
represent a minimum of four local forms of each of twenty-four facets. This
ensured adequate replication of classes in all categories down to local forms of land
facets. Expeditions were mounted to visit the chosen sites in Libya, Socotra and
Abd al Kuri, and Trucial Oman (now United Arab Emirates) and Bahrain, while
data had been obtained for south-west USA by visiting sites during the earlier
classification stage (Mitchell, 1969). Nearly 800 sites were visited in all. Table II
shows how they were distributed among the classes of the hierarchy. At each site


Horn South-west

Abd al Sonora Desert

Kuri Basin & Range

Abd al Outwash areas

in California LAND REGIONS
& Arizona

Central Mohawk Mts Newberry

Plain Outwash Area

ColluviaJ Colluvial Hummocky

Plains Upper Upper Sand FACETS
Wash Fan Fan Flats Flats

Fig. 4. Fragment of the hierarchy of local classes for desert terrain. In most instances
each class at every level above that of the facet consists of several classes in the level
immediately below. In a few instances, e.g. the Abd al Kuri land province, it contains
only one. Facets and, in some instances, land systems are grouped into abstract classes
without regard to their place in the hierarchy. Thus the upper fans of the Abd al Kuri
Central Plain and those of the Mohawk Mountains Outwash are regarded as the same
abstract facet. Likewise the two facets labelled 'Colluvial Flats3 belong to the same
abstract. The Abd al Kuri Central Plain and the Mohawk Mountains Outwash are
analogues and belong to the same abstract land system while the Newberry Area does not

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the vegetation and soil (both its surface and pro

possible quantitatively, and soil was taken for labor
size distribution, pH, electrical conductivity, Atterb
calcium carbonate and sulphate. Full details are

Statistical analysis and results

In the absence of other information the best prediction for the value of a soil
property at an unvisited or unrecorded site is the mean for the class of land to
which the site belongs. When data are distributed symmetrically about a central
peak the mean is also the most likely value. Confidence limits on a prediction
depend on the variability ofthe class, most usefully measured as the variance, the
mean square deviation from the class mean. Thus the smaller the variance the
narrower the prediction limits, and vice versa. Comparisons of variance over
different levels of a classification are sensible only if the variances in any one level
are reasonably constant, which they will almost certainly not be when distributions
are strongly skewed or sharply truncated. So those data that appeared to have
strongly non-normal distributions were transformed to their logarithms, square
roots or arcsines as appropriate to make them more nearly normal and stabilize
their variances. The transformations that were applied are indicated in Tables III
and IV.
The pooled variance of each variate was calculated first within abstract facets.
This is the variance from which prediction limits of any unknown sites would have
to be calculated if only the facet and its mean value were known. Variances were
then computed within facet local forms (i.e., within facets within local land systems)
from which the narrowest prediction limits permitted by the system could be
calculated. Then, widening the scope ofthe facet to that within regions, that within
provinces and finally that within divisions, corresponding pooled variances were
calculated for facets. Table III gives a selection of these values, and examples of
80 per cent prediction limits assuming the general mean to be the most likely value.
Variances were also calculated for classes in each level of classification. Here
analysis follows the usual practice for a nested hierarchy, though with unequal
representation (see Snedecor and Cochran, 1967; Gower, 1962), and the results
for the same variates are summarized in Table IV.
The variation associated with each level in the hierarchy may also be expressed
as the component of variance for that level. It represents the differences between
class means at that level, and is estimated from the same analysis as the within-
class variances. Tables V and VI present components of variance, as percentages
ofthe total variance ofthe same properties as in Table III and IV, first when the
abstract facet is assumed to be known (Table V) and then for the hierarchy of
local forms (Table VI).
Tables III to VI give a selection of results. The same analyses were carried out
on all 62 measured variates, and Table VII presents the median values of the
variance components expressed as percentages of the total variance.

Discussion and Conclusions

The scheme of classification and data storage described by Brink et al. (1966)
focuses on the facet as the class about which generalizations and predictions are
made. The first column of Table III gives the variances and 80 per cent prediction
limits, i.e. the limits within which values at 80 per cent of sites are expected to lie,

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for a selection of soil properties when on

cribe the variation in the facet as a whole
determine the precision of any prediction
pertaining to a particular facet. In many i
the prediction limits correspondingly wid
know this, and must then decide whether t
purpose. However, these over all facet var
throughout the desert zone. The variances
scope of the facet is restricted, as Table I
will be more precise if they are based on
facet near the site, i.e. within the same lo
less precise if extended to all data on that
to the province, and so on.
Although the above is generally true, the
are not all equal, and in some instances res
in the hierarchy confers no advantage. Res
reduces the variance more or less for all pr
facet variance at province level is no impr
variance at land system level no improv
shows how the steps differ for different
overall within-facet variance is distributed
percentages given may be thought of as e
facet variance explained by each level. Usin
Table VII, column A, shows that the level
portion of variance for which they acc
province > land system > land region. The
within-facet variance less than does its sub
Although classes in the higher categorie
primarily as aids to facet recognition and
individual facets, there could be some p
generalization. Table IV, giving within-class
shows how worthwhile such generalization
decrease with the extent of the class, from
user must judge at what level he may usef
Again, the steps by which the variances
contributions to the total variance are m
ponents of variance (Table VI). For some p
of the variance; for example, there are n
provinces and regions within divisions.
particular level has a substantial effect; for
between local facets, and differences in so
almost all properties a large proportion o
facets. For many there is also a fairly subs
Table VII, column B, showing it as seco
contributes in explaining the total varianc
However, for most properties the bigge
apart from the residual variance, is made
This, and the fact that the within-facet va
facet quite the most useful level of terra
land system is also useful in delimiting th
maps and aiding its identification on air p

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Components of variance of properties expressed as percentages of the total v

level of the {local form) hierarchy
Between Between Between Between Between Residual
land land land land land {within facet
Property divisions provinces regions systems facets local form)
Average diameter of surface
stones -0-7 15-2 -4-6 360 16-5 37-6
Mean cone index at 7-5 cm
Surface vegetation cover
Height of dominant plants
Coarse sand fraction in
0-15 cm layer
Medium sand fraction in
0-15 cm layer
Fine sand fraction in 0-15 cm
Silt plus clay fraction in
0-15 cm layer
Silt plus clay fraction in
15-30 cm layer
Silt plus clay fraction in
30-90 cm layer
Plastic limit in 0-15 cm layer
Electrical conductivity of
0-15 cm layer 4-4 32-4 5-4 22-6 17-8 17-4


Median values of the variance components for 62 soil properties1 expressed as

A. the 'within-facet' variance, and B. the total variance
Hierarchical level

Between land divisions within land zone

Between land provinces within land divisions
Between land regions within land province
Between land system local forms within land region
Between facet local forms within land system local form
Between sites within land system local form
Between land system abstracts within land zone
Between facet local forms within land system abstract

l.The 62 properties included the following: gradient upslope and downslope; spaci
maximum, and average size of surface stones; vegetation cover and the height and spa
of dominant plants; soil strength at the surface and 7-5 cm depth; Munsell hue, value,
chroma of the surface and each of 3 soil layers; width, depth, granulometric fractio
Atterberg limits, electrical conductivity, pH, % CaC03, and ?0 CaS04 of each of 3
2. This represents that percentage of the total variance which is unaccounted for by the

available or can be obtained planners should predict soil conditions at unvisited

sites only from conditions at sampled sites in the same facet local form. If data
are too sparse they may use information either from the same facet more widely
spread or from local terrain classes in a higher category, using tables such as
Tables III to VI as a guide.

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A cknowledgements
The original research on which this paper is based w
Engineers, and we thank the Military Vehicles and
(formerly MEXE) for support and collaboration.
Environmental Research Council for funding the l
Mrs S. A. Bell for help with the computing.

Beckett, P. H. T., and Webster, R. 1965a Field trials of a terrain classification?organization
and methods. Report No. 873, Military Engineering Experimental Establishment,
Beckett, P. H. T., and Webster, R. 1965b Field trials of a terrain classification?statistical
procedure. Report No. 874, Military Engineering Experimental Establishment, Christ?
Beckett, P. H. T., Webster, R., McNeil, G. M., and Mitchell, C. W. 1972 Terrain evaluation
by means of a data bank. Geogrl. J. 138: 430-56.
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group on land classification and data storage. Report No. 940, Military Engineering
Establishment, Christchurch.
Gower, J. C. 1962. Variance component estimation for unbalanced hierarchical classification.
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Linton, D. L. 1951 The delimitation of morphological regions. In: L. D. Stamp and S. W.
Wooldridge (Editors), London Essays in Geography, pp. 199-217.
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Middle East. Report No. 1118, Military Engineering Experimental Establishment,
Christchurch (unpublished).
Perrin, R. M. S., and Mitchell, C. W. 1969 An appraisal of physiographie units for predicting
site conditions in arid areas. Report No. 1111, Military Engineering Experimental
Establishment, Christchurch.
Snedecor, G. W., and Cochran W. G. 1967 Statistical methods. 6th edition. Iowa State
University Press: Ames.
Webster, R., and Beckett, P. H. T. 1964 A study of the agronomic value of soil maps inter-
preted from air photographs. Transactions, 8th International Congress of Soil Science 5:
Webster, R., and Beckett, P. H. T. 1968 Quality and usefulness of soil maps. Nature, 2

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