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Plateau vs. Highland — What's the Difference?

By Tayyaba Rehman & Fiza Rafique — Updated on April 2, 2024
Plateau refers to a flat, elevated landform, while highland denotes a general area of high elevation, often rugged and less uniformly flat.
Plateau vs. Highland — What's the Difference?

Difference Between Plateau and Highland


Key Differences

A plateau is characterized by its relatively flat terrain at a higher elevation than the surrounding area, often formed by geological processes such as volcanic activity or the uplift of the earth's crust. Plateaus can be found around the world, serving as areas for settlement, agriculture, or as natural barriers. In contrast, highlands refer to any land area that is elevated above the surrounding region, typically featuring a variety of terrain including mountains, hills, and plateaus. Highlands are often associated with mountainous regions, showcasing more topographical diversity and complexity than a plateau.
The formation of plateaus is usually the result of tectonic activity, lava outpouring, or erosion that leaves a flat area elevated above the surrounding landscape. This process results in a distinct landform with steep sides and a flat top, commonly found in both arid and humid environments. Highlands, however, encompass a broader range of elevated terrains, formed through a variety of geological processes, including the collision of tectonic plates that create mountains and uplifted areas. As a result, highlands can include plateaus within their expanse, alongside other elevated features.
Plateaus are known for their significant ecological and climatic impacts, often creating unique habitats due to their elevation and isolation. For example, the Tibetan Plateau, known as the "Roof of the World," influences climate patterns across Asia. Meanwhile, highlands, with their varied terrain, support diverse ecosystems and climates within the same region, from dense forests to bare rock, depending on altitude, latitude, and other environmental factors. Highlands can thus offer a wider range of biodiversity and climatic zones than plateaus.
In human geography, plateaus are often areas of significant agricultural and settlement importance, providing flat lands at high elevations that are conducive to certain types of farming and habitation. High altitude plateaus like those in Ethiopia are renowned for their agricultural productivity. On the other hand, highlands might be less densely populated due to their rugged terrain but are valued for their water resources, as they often form the headwaters of major river systems, and for their cultural and historical significance in many parts of the world.
Despite their differences, both plateaus and highlands play crucial roles in the earth’s geography, influencing weather patterns, human settlement, and biodiversity. The distinction between them lies in their formation, terrain, and the ecological and human activities they support. While plateaus offer expansive flat areas at high elevations, highlands encompass a mix of elevated terrains, each contributing uniquely to the planet's diversity.

Comparison Chart


Flat, elevated landform
General area of high elevation, often rugged


Relatively flat terrain
Varied, including mountains, hills, and plateaus


Tectonic activity, lava outpouring, erosion
Variety of geological processes, including tectonic collisions

Ecological Impact

Unique habitats due to elevation and isolation
Diverse ecosystems and climates

Human Geography

Areas of agricultural and settlement importance
Less densely populated, valued for water resources and cultural significance

Compare with Definitions


A flat, elevated area rising sharply above surrounding land.
The Colorado Plateau is known for its stunning landscapes.


An area of high land, often mountainous.
The Scottish Highlands are renowned for their rugged beauty.


Can be found in both arid and humid environments.
The Deccan Plateau is crucial for India's agriculture.


Supports diverse ecosystems.
The Andean highlands host a wide range of flora and fauna.


Characterized by steep edges and a flat top.
The plateau's steep cliffs are a challenge for climbers.


Formed by various geological processes.
The collision of tectonic plates has created many highlands.


Formed by geological processes such as volcanic activity.
Lava plateaus form when lava spreads over large areas.


Valued for water resources and cultural heritage.
Highlands often contain the sources of major rivers.


Influences climate and biodiversity.
The Tibetan Plateau affects weather patterns across Asia.


Includes a range of elevated terrains.
Highlands feature a mix of mountains, hills, and plateaus.


In geology and physical geography, a plateau ( , , or ; French: []; plural plateaus or plateaux), also called a high plain or a tableland, is an area of a highland consisting of flat terrain, that is raised sharply above the surrounding area on at least one side. Often one or more sides have deep hills.


Highlands or uplands are any mountainous region or elevated mountainous plateau. Generally speaking, upland (or uplands) refers to ranges of hills, typically up to 500–600 m (1,600–2,000 ft).


An area of fairly level high ground.


Elevated land.


A state of little or no change following a period of activity or progress
The peace process had reached a plateau


HighlandsA mountainous or hilly section of a country.


Reach a state of little or no change after a period of activity or progress
The industry's problems have plateaued out


Any of a variety of hardy beef cattle developed in the Scottish Highlands and having long horns and a shaggy coat.Also called Scottish Highland.


An elevated, comparatively level expanse of land; a tableland.


Of, relating to, or characteristic of a highland.


A relatively stable level, period, or state
Mortgage rates declined, then reached a plateau.


A high area; land that is higher than surrounding areas.


To reach a stable level; level off
"The tension seemed to grow by degrees, then it plateaued" (Tom Clancy).


Elevated or mountainous land; (often in the pl.) an elevated region or country; as, the Highlands of Scotland.


A largely level expanse of land at a high elevation; tableland.


Of, located in, or characteristic of high or hilly country. Contrasted to lowland.


(of a varying quantity) A comparatively stable level after a period of increase.


Elevated (e.g., mountainous) land


(dated) An ornamental dish for the table; a tray or salver.


Used of high or hilly country


A notable level of attainment or achievement.


(intransitive) (of a varying quantity) To reach a stable level after a period of increase; to level off.


A flat surface; especially, a broad, level, elevated area of land; a table-land.


An ornamental dish for the table; a tray or salver.


A relatively flat highland

Common Curiosities

What factors contribute to the formation of plateaus?

Tectonic activity, lava outpouring, and erosion are key factors in plateau formation.

Can a plateau be part of a highland?

Yes, plateaus can be components of highlands, alongside other elevated features.

How do plateaus influence human settlement?

Their flat terrain at high elevations is suitable for agriculture and settlement.

What is a plateau?

A plateau is a flat, elevated landform with steep sides, formed by geological processes.

Why are highlands important for biodiversity?

Their varied terrain and climates support a wide range of ecosystems and species.

How do highlands differ from plateaus?

Highlands encompass a broader area of elevated land, including mountains and plateaus, and feature more varied terrain.

Why are highlands valued for their water resources?

They often contain the headwaters of major rivers, crucial for downstream ecosystems and human use.

Can the terrain of highlands be flat?

While highlands are often rugged, they can include flat areas, such as plateaus, within their expanse.

What role do plateaus play in climate patterns?

Plateaus can affect local and regional climate patterns due to their elevation and isolation.

How does biodiversity in highlands compare to other regions?

Highlands often have higher biodiversity due to their varied climates and isolated habitats.

What makes highlands culturally significant?

Their unique landscapes and isolation have fostered distinct cultural practices and histories.

What geological processes form highlands?

Highlands are formed through tectonic collisions, erosion, and other geological activities.

Are plateaus found in specific climates?

Plateaus can exist in both arid and humid environments, impacting local climates.

How do humans adapt to living in highlands?

Humans adapt through specialized agriculture, water management, and housing suited to the rugged terrain and climate.

Are all plateaus suitable for agriculture?

Not all, but many plateaus, especially those in humid regions, are valuable for certain types of farming.

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Author Spotlight

Written by
Tayyaba Rehman
Tayyaba Rehman is a distinguished writer, currently serving as a primary contributor to As a researcher in semantics and etymology, Tayyaba's passion for the complexity of languages and their distinctions has found a perfect home on the platform. Tayyaba delves into the intricacies of language, distinguishing between commonly confused words and phrases, thereby providing clarity for readers worldwide.
Co-written by
Fiza Rafique
Fiza Rafique is a skilled content writer at, where she meticulously refines and enhances written pieces. Drawing from her vast editorial expertise, Fiza ensures clarity, accuracy, and precision in every article. Passionate about language, she continually seeks to elevate the quality of content for readers worldwide.

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