An iterative procedure that implements the classification of continuous topography as a problem in digital image-processing automatically divides an area into categories of surface form; three taxonomic criteria-slope gradient, local convexity, and surface texture-are calculated from a square-grid digital elevation model (DEM). The sequence of programmed operations combines twofold-partitioned maps of the three variables converted to greyscale images, using the mean of each variable as the dividing threshold. To subdivide increasingly subtle topography, grid cells sloping at less than mean gradient of the input DEM are classified by designating mean values of successively lower-sloping subsets of the study area (nested means) as taxonomic thresholds, thereby increasing the number of output categories from the minimum 8 to 12 or 16. Program output is exemplified by 16 topographic types for the world at 1-km spatial resolution (SRTM30 data), the Japanese Islands at 270??m, and part of Hokkaido at 55??m. Because the procedure is unsupervised and reflects frequency distributions of the input variables rather than pre-set criteria, the resulting classes are undefined and must be calibrated empirically by subsequent analysis. Maps of the example classifications reflect physiographic regions, geological structure, and landform as well as slope materials and processes; fine-textured terrain categories tend to correlate with erosional topography or older surfaces, coarse-textured classes with areas of little dissection. In Japan the resulting classes approximate landform types mapped from airphoto analysis, while in the Americas they create map patterns resembling Hammond's terrain types or surface-form classes; SRTM30 output for the United States compares favorably with Fenneman's physical divisions. Experiments are suggested for further developing the method; the Arc/Info AML and the map of terrain classes for the world are available as online downloads. ?? 2006 Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.