What is a heap?

A heap is a priority queue data type which contains elements with keys (duplicate keys are permitted) from a totally-ordered universe. A min-oriented heap supports the following core operations:

  • MAKE-HEAP(): create an empty heap
  • INSERT(H,x): insert an element x into the heap
  • FIND-MIN(H): return an element with the smallest key
  • EXTRACT-MIN(H): remove the element with the smallest key
  • IS-EMPTY(H): is the heap empty?
  • SIZE(H): return the number of elements of the heap
  • CLEAR(H): remove all elements of the heap

A heap does not support a search operation. A special type of heap called explicit or addressable resolves this issue by returning a handle when inserting a new element. This handle can later be used to additionally perform the following operations:

  • DECREASE-KEY(H,x,k): decrease the key of element x to k
  • DELETE(H,x): delete the element x from the heap

Implicit heaps are represented using arrays. They are not addressable as the location of the elements in memory can change. However, they can be made to be addressable by using an additional layer of indirection. In this case we store handles inside the array. Each handle contains an additional integer property, designating the location in the array where the handle is stored.

Some heaps are meldable, that is they efficiently support the union operation:

  • MELD(H1,H2): add all elements of H2 into H1 and destroy H2

As a general rule, heaps using an array representation are not meldable.


Heaps have a lot of applications, among a few are the efficient implementation of the following techniques and/or algorithms.

  • A* search.
  • Heapsort.
  • Online median.
  • Hiffman encoding.
  • Minimum Spanning Tree algorithms.
  • Discrete event-driven simulation.
  • Network bandwidth management.
  • Dijkstra’s shortest-paths algorithm.