The terrain reversal effect is a perceptual phenomenon which causes an illusion in various 3D geographic visualizations where landforms appear inverted, e.g. we perceive valleys as ridges and vice versa. Given that such displays are important for spatio-visual analysis, this illusion can lead to critical mistakes in interpreting the terrain. However, it is currently undocumented how commonly this effect is experienced. In this paper, we study the prevalence of the terrain reversal effect in satellite imagery through a two-stage online user experiment. The experiment was conducted with the participation of a diverse and relatively large population (n = 535). Participants were asked to identify landforms (valley or ridge?) or judge a 3D spatial relationship (is A higher than B?). When the images were rotated by 180°, the results were reversed. In a control task with ‘illusion-free’ original images, people were successful in identifying landforms, yet a very strong illusion occurred when these images were rotated 180°. Our findings demonstrate that the illusion is acutely present; thus, we need a better understanding of the problem and its solutions. Additionally, the results caution us that in an interactive environment where people can rotate the display, we might be introducing a severe perceptual problem.