Earth Science

Common Landforms: how they form, definitions, and examples

Many forces work together to shape the landscape. Plate tectonics, Vocanic activity, erosion, and deposition work slowly over time to form and change our earth’s surface. All these forces working together create some pretty unique and cool landforms! In this post, we’ll take a closer look at 12 common landforms – what they look like, and how they form!

What are landforms?

Landforms are the naturally formed, solid features of the earth’s surface. Landforms shape the earth’s topography, or form. Landforms shape the way the surface of our earth looks and the ways that humans, plants, and animals live in different areas. Next time you head out on a road trip or visit a park, see which of these 12 common landforms you can spot!


A canyon near Elephant Butte, in Arches National Park, Utah

Definition: A deep, narrow passage bounded by steep cliffs on both sides. Canyons are like valleys but with much steeper walls.

Formation: Canyons form due to erosion by running water. The running water may be seasonal and only flow for a few months of the year, or flow year-round.

Examples of Canyons


Photo by Sebastian Palomino on

Definition: An naturally formed, underground chamber, below the earth’s surface or on the side of a hill or cliff.

Formation: Many caves are formed by erosion. Caves can form when slowly seeping groundwater dissolves buried rock leaving behind hollowed-out caverns. For example, the rock limestone dissolves when in contact with mildly acidic groundwater. Erosion can also form caves when waves carve sea caves into cliffsides.

Examples of Caves


McAfee’s Knob, an overhanging cliff in Virginia, along the Appalachian Trail.

Definition: A steep rock face where the lands’ surface abruptly drops off.

Formation: Cliffs form due to erosion from forces such as running water, ocean waves, groundwater seepage, or ice.

Examples of Cliffs


A hill along the Colorado Trail, Colorado, USA.

Definition: A rounded, naturally elevated area of land.

Formation: Hills form in many ways. Some hills form as formerly larger mountains erode. Some hills form when sediments are deposited and then colonized with plants, such as the hills left behind in areas once covered by glaciers. Some hills form due to plate tectonic activity.

Examples of Hills


An island. Photo by Flo Dahm on

Definition: A body of land surrounded by water. Islands are smaller than continents and can be found in many types of water bodies such as oceans, lakes, and rivers.

Formation: Islands may be formed by volcanic activity or by the deposition of sediments like sand. Plate tectonics also play a role – where ocean plates converge, uplift and volcanic activity occurs – increasing the elevation of the ocean floor until it breaches the water’s surface, forming islands.

Examples of Islands

  • A Small Island near Pulau Guraici, North Maluku, Indonesia
  • Isle Royale National Park, Michigan, USA: the largest island in Lake Superior. Isle Royale is so large it is smaller lakes on it, which have smaller islands within them!
  • Bird Island, near South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands off the coast of Antarctica


An isthmus. Photo by Lachlan Ross on

Definition: A narrow strip of land with water on two sides, connecting two bodies of land.

Formation: Isthmuses form when the water level exposes an elevated ridge of land above the water’s surface. Some isthmuses, such as the Isthmus of Panama, form where tectonic plates converge. Others, like the Madison Isthmus, are a result of the lakes and glacial drumlins (ridges of loose rock and coarse sediment deposited by glaciers) left behind in a post-glacial landscape.

Examples of Isthmuses


A mesa in Capitol Reef National Park, Utah.

Definition: A naturally elevated, flat-topped area of land with steep sides. It is larger than a butte, but smaller than a plateau.

Formation: Mesas form as running water erodes away the rocks and sediments surrounding an area, leaving it elevated above the surrounding landscape. A “capstone” made of a harder rock than the surrounding area may prevent the mesa itself from eroding away as quickly.

Examples of Mesas


Mountains near Durango, Colorado, along the Colorado Trail

Definition: A steep, naturally elevated area of land. It typically has high relief and may have exposed bedrock.

 Formation: Mountain ranges form when two tectonic plates collide together. This may occur on coasts or in the middle of continents. Mountains experience lots of precipitation, which causes them to slowly erode away.

Examples of Mountains


A peninsula near Hanauma Bay in Oahu, Hawaii

Definition: A body of land that sticks out into a body of water. It is mostly surrounded by water and connected to a larger landmass on one side.

Formation: Peninsulas form when the water level exposes an elevated ridge of land above the water’s surface.

Examples of Peninsulas

Sand Dune

Sand dunes. Photo by Taryn Elliott on

Definition: A hill of loose sand commonly found near oceans and in deserts.

Formation: Sand dunes form when lots of loose sediments are deposited in an area and rearranged into asymmetrical mounds by the wind.

Examples of Sand Dunes


A glacial valley near Byron Glacier, outside of Anchorage, Alaska.

Definition: A low area of land between two hills or mountains. Valleys often have streams flowing through them.

Formation: Valleys are formed by erosion. Running water or glaciers can carve out valleys over long time periods. Flowing water tends to cut “V” shaped valleys, while glaciers carve out “U” shaped valleys.

Examples of Valleys


View from inside the crater of a dormant volcano in Haleakalā National Park, Maui, Hawaii.

Definition: A mountain or hill with a crater through which lava is projected.

Formation: Volcanos typically form due to plate tectonic activity, which can allow the molten rock to breach the earth’s surface. The buildup of solidified lava forms a cone with a crater in it.

Examples of Volcanoes

Other landforms

  • Alluvial fan – a cone shaped pile of sediments deposited by flowing water in an area where the landscape changes from steep to flat.
  • Arches and natural bridges – rock formation containing a large hole, typically formed by erosion.
  • Beach – gradually sloping land along the edge of a body of water; usually covered with sediments like sand, pebbles, or cobbles.
  • Butte – a small flat-topped mountain; not as large as a mesa.
  • Moraine – landform feature created by the loose rocks and sediments plowed into piles by a glacier.
  • Plateau – a large, elevated flat area; larger than a mesa. Some plateaus, like the Colorado Plateau, are so large they span hundreds of miles.

What about water bodies?

You can learn more about water bodies in this separate post on common water features!

Also, if you are planning to teach a landforms and water features unit, you may enjoy the learning materials I’ve created on these topics! All my learning materials feature my artwork and are based on my experience as an environmental scientist! Find them in my shop or click on the links below:

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References and Further Reading

  1. National Park Service (September 22, 2020). Plate Tectonics & Our National Parks. Availalbe:
  2. Plummer, C. C., Carlson, D. H., & Hammersley L. (2019) Physical Geology. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill Education. (16th ed., pp. 232 – 320).
  3. University of Hawaii (n.d.). Weathering and Erosion.Sea Earth Atmosphere. Available:

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