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A topographer is a geology and geography expert who surveys pieces of land and creates highly accurate representations. He or she utilizes sophisticated computer equipment to ensure precise measurements of the elevation, location, shape, and contours of a particular area. Many topographers work for government and private research institutions to study Earth's surface features. Professionals may also be employed by oil corporations, land development firms, and engineering companies to provide reliable, practical information about drilling and construction sites.
A research topographer conducts careful field studies to map mountains, valleys, lakes, glaciers, and even ocean floors. He or she relies on advanced technologies, such as global positioning system (GPS) devices, laser sights, radar systems, and aerial cameras. Topographers enter data into computer simulation programs to create precise 3-D representations of landforms. Using their findings, professionals are able to track changes over time and learn how certain features were formed. Many researchers split their time between field observations, research, and instructing students at universities.
Some researchers who have expert knowledge of astronomy study the surfaces of planets, moons, stars, asteroids, and other faraway bodies. They make use of powerful telescopes and data from satellites to identify peaks, valleys, craters, volcanoes, and many other prominent features. When a topographer cannot get a clear view or image, he or she can still identify certain properties by analyzing shadows and orbital patterns. Like other types of research topographers, astrology experts are usually employed by specialized government institutions, private laboratories, and universities.
A topographer may also work as a consultant for companies that specialize in oil exploration or construction. Topographers at oil companies typically work alongside geologists and oceanographers to pinpoint the location of oil deposits with GPS devices, measure their width, and decide how far underground the company must drill. Land development and civil engineering firms often work with topographers to determine the best methods of excavating sites and incorporating the natural contours of the land into project designs.
A college degree is necessary to become a topographer in most settings. The majority of working professionals hold at least bachelor's degrees in geography, geology, or cartography. A doctoral degree is often needed if an individual wants to conduct independent research or teach at a university. College courses in topography and closely-related subjects allow students to familiarize themselves with different tools and techniques used in the field. Most new topographers begin their careers as assistants to established professionals to gain practical experience and build their credentials.