A new hierarchical triangle-based model for representing surfaces over sampled data is proposed, which is based on the subdivision of the surface domain into nested triangulations, called a hierarchical triangulation (HT). The model allows compression of spatial data and representation of a surface at successively finer degrees of resolution. An HT is a collection of triangulations organized in a tree, where each node, except for the root, is a triangulation refining a face belonging to its parent in the hierarchy. We present a topological model for representing an HT, and algorithms for its construction and for the extraction of a triangulation at a given degree of resolution. The surface model, called a hierarchical triangulated surface (HTS) is obtained by associating data values with the vertices of triangles, and by defining suitable functions that describe the surface over each triangular patch. We consider an application of a piecewise-linear version of the HTS to interpolate topographical data, and we describe a specialized version of the construction algorithm that builds an HTS for a terrain starting from a high-resolution rectangular grid of sampled data. Finally, we present an algorithm for extracting representations of terrain at variable resolution over the domain.