GEOG 482
The Nature of Geographic Information

8. Digital Elevation Model (DEM)


The term "Digital Elevation Model" has both generic and specific meanings. In general, a DEM is any raster representation of a terrain surface. Specifically, a DEM is a data product of the U.S. Geological Survey. Here we consider the characteristics of DEMs produced by the USGS Later in this chapter we'll consider sources of global terrain data.


USGS DEMs are raster grids of elevation values that are arrayed in series of south-north profiles. Like other USGS data, DEMs were produced originally in tiles that correspond to topographic quadrangles. Large scale (7.5-minute and 15-minute), intermediate scale (30 minute), and small scale (1 degree) series were produced for the entire U.S. The resolution of a DEM is a function of the east-west spacing of the profiles and the south-north spacing of elevation points within each profile.

DEMs corresponding to 7.5-minute quadrangles are available at 10-meter resolution for much, but not all, of the U.S. Coverage is complete at 30-meter resolution. In these large scale DEMs elevation profiles are aligned parallel to the central meridian of the local UTM zone, as shown in Figure 7.8.1, below. See how the DEM tile in the illustration below appears to be tilted? This is because the corner points are defined in unprojected geographic coordinates that correspond to the corner points of a USGS quadrangle. The farther the quadrangle is from the central meridian of the UTM zone, the more it is tilted.

Schematic illustration of elevation profiles in a USGS digital elevation model
Figure 7.8.1 Arrangement of elevation profiles in a large scale USGS Digital Elevation Model.
USGS, 1987

As shown in Figure 7.8.2, the arrangement of the elevation profiles is different in intermediate- and small-scale DEMs. Like meridians in the northern hemisphere, the profiles in 30-minute and 1-degree DEMs converge toward the north pole. For this reason the resolution of intermediate- and small-scale DEMs (that is to say, the spacing of the elevation values) is expressed differently than for large-scale DEMs. The resolution of 30-minute DEMs is said to be 2 arc seconds and 1-degree DEMs are 3 arc seconds. Since an arc second is 1/3600 of a degree, elevation values in a 3 arc second DEM are spaced 1/1200 degree apart, representing a grid cell about 66 meters "wide" by 93 meters "tall" at 45º latitude.

Schematic illustration of elevation profiles in a small-scale USGS digital elevation model
Figure 7.8.2 Arrangement of elevation profiles in a small scale USGS Digital Elevation Model.
USGS, 1987

The preferred method for producing the elevation values that populate DEM profiles is interpolation from DLG hypsography and hydrography layers (including the hydrography layer enables analysts to delineate valleys with less uncertainty than hypsography alone). Some older DEMs were produced from elevation contours digitized from paper maps or during photogrammetric processing, then smoothed to filter out errors. Others were produced photogrammtrically from aerial photographs.

Data quality

The vertical accuracy of DEMs is expressed as the root mean square error (RMSE) of a sample of at least 28 elevation points. The target accuracy for large-scale DEMs is seven meters; 15 meters is the maximum error allowed.

Spatial Reference Information

Like DLGs, USGS DEMs are heterogenous. They are cast on the Universal Transverse Mercator projection used in the local UTM zone. Some DEMs are based upon the North American Datum of 1983, others on NAD 27. Elevations in some DEMs are referenced to either NGVD 29 or NAVD 88.

Entities and attributes

Each record in a DEM is a profile of elevation points. Records include the UTM coordinates of the starting point, the number of elevation points that follow in the profile, and the elevation values that make up the profile. Other than the starting point, the positions of the other elevation points need not be encoded, since their spacing is defined. (Later in this lesson you'll download a sample USGS DEM file. Try opening it in a text editor to see what I'm talking about.)


DEM tiles are available for free download through many state and regional clearinghouses. You can find these sources by searching the GEODATA portion of the Data.Gov site, formerly the separate Geospatial One Stop site.

As part of its National Map initiative, the USGS has developed a "seamless" National Elevation Dataset that is derived from DEMs, among other sources. NED data are available at three resolutions: 1 arc second (approximately 30 meters), 1/3 arc second (approximately 10 meters), and 1/9 arc second (approximately 3 meters). Coverage ranges from complete at 1 arc second to extremely sparse at 1/9 arc second. An extensive FAQ on NED data is published here. The second of the two following activities involves downloading NED data and viewing it in Global Mapper.

Try This!

Exploring DEMs with Global Mapper

Global Mapper time again! This time you'll investigate the characteristics of a USGS DEM. The instructions below assume that you have already installed the software on your computer. (If you haven't, return to installation instructions presented earlier in Chapter 6). The instructions will remind you how to open a DEM in Global Mapper. In the practice quiz that follows you'll be asked questions require you to explore the data for answers.

  1. First Download the data archive. The ZIP archive is 2.5 Mb in size. If you can't download the file, contact me right away so we can help you resolve the problem.
  2. Now decompress the archive into a directory on your hard disk.
    • Open the archive
    • Create a subdirectory called "DEM" within the directory in which you save class data.
    • Extract all files in the ZIP archive into your new subdirectory.
    The end result will be two subdirectories, one of which contains a 30-meter DEM, the other a 10-meter DEM. These datasets are in the earlier distribution format of USGS DEM data -- elevation data in horizontal (pixel) units of meters and representative of the area covered by a 1:24,000 topo map sheet. In the Try This that follows this one you will see that the distribution format options have expanded.
  3. Launch Global Mapper.
  4. Open a Digital Elevation Model by choosing File > Open Data File(s)..., then navigate to the directory DEM_30m or DEM_10m, then open the file bushkill_pa.dem
  5. Use the Zoom and Pan tools to magnify and scroll across the DEM. The Full View button (house icon) refreshes the initial full view of the dataset.
  6. To see the DEM data with(out) hill shading, find the Enable/Disable Hill Shading button (it has a sunburst in the lower left corner).
    Enable hill shading.
  7. You can also alter the appearance of the DEM by choosing Tools > Configure, and changing the settings in Vertical Options and Shader Options. Try this: on the Vertical Options tab select Gradient Shader from the pick list. Then select the Shader Options tab and choose a color from each of the Low Color and High Color button in the Gradient Shader area. HIt the Apply button.
    Go back to the Vertical Options tab and experiment with the Vertical Exaggeration slider. HIt Apply.
  8. Global Mapper provides access to the metadata you'll need to answer questions in a practice quiz. To access the metadata, navigate to Tools > Control Center, then click the Metadata button.

Try This!

Download your own National Elevation Dataset (NED) data

  1. Go to the Elevation page of the USGS National Map site.
    Read any of the information there that you choose.
  2. Follow one of the links on that page to The National Map Viewer or follow this link to the The National Map Viewer.
    In addition to following the step here in this Try This exercise you can access instructions written by the USGS at these two locations:
    The National Map Viewer Download
    The National Map Viewer Quick Start Guide
  3. On the National Map Viewer page you will not see DEM Elevation data listed in the left hand Overlays pane. You will just see the index.
    Use the GIS tools, found above the map area, to pan to and to zoom in on an area of interest.
    Expand the Elevation Index list and then expand the DEM Product Index list in order to see for what resolutions data is available in the area in question.
  4. When you are ready to download some data, click the Download Data button. A list of Download Options will appear. I am going to have you use the second option on the list.

- You could delineate a specific area of interest by choosing the first item in the Download Options list and then click-dragging a rectangle.
- You could also choose the entire current map extent, but depending upon your zoom level that may be a huge dataset.

  1. The second Download Options choice allows you to select from various sets of reference polygons on which to base your choice. In this list of reference areas the default is the index (a display of bounding polygons) of the areas covered by the 1:24,000 USGS topographic map series. (We first learned of the 1:24,000 scale map series in Chapter 2.) When you opened the Download Options listing, the boundaries of the topographic maps should have been drawn on the map in green outline. If you don't see the index lines, try zooming in or our a little bit.
    Leave the reference area choice set to Index 24K.
    Now, click on the map in an area you are interested in. A rectangle corresponding to the topographic map that covers that area will be highlighted with a hatch pattern.
    At the same time the left hand pane will switch to the Selection tab and the name of your selected topographic map will be listed.
  2. In the Selection pane, under the name of the topographic map, click the Download link. The USGS Available Data for Download window will appear.
  3. Click to check the box for the Elevation DEM Products entry on the Theme list.
    Click the Next button.
    A list of available data sets will display.
  4. Check the box for one of the data sets. to make this exercise as simple as possible I want you to choose an ArcGrid data set. Keep in mind that the higher the resolution, the bigger the data file will be and the longer it will take to download.
    Click the Next button.
    The left hand pane will change to the Cart tab.
  5. Move your mouse cursor over the entry for the data set seen in the Selected items list and click.
    (You may need to click a second time.)
    An entry will appear in the Preview area of the Cart pane.
    The map display will change to show the Elevation Index layer. Also, a red dashed rectangle will indicate that actual extent of the data you will be downloading. The area defined by this rectangle is apt to be larger than the extent of the topographic map index rectangle that you initially chose. Apparently the Map Viewer is set up to automatically bundle data covering a minimum extent. In my tests, when I used a 1:24,000 topographic quadrangle as my selection criterion I received data covering a rectangular area one degree on a side.
  6. In the Preview area click on the Download selected product link.
    A ZIP archive (.zip) will be created that you can save to your hard disk (e.g., "")
    Proceed to save the data file to your computer. The download process will take several seconds, depending upon your Internet download rate.
  7. Launch Global Mapper and navigate to where you saved the ZIP archive.
    Double-click on the .zip file name. The data should display -- the software can read the data even in its compressed .zip form.
    An image of the DEM data should appear in the Global Mapper window, similar to what you see shown below (even though the image below is from an older version of Global Mapper). If the Bushkill DEM is still visible, open the Control Center and uncheck the Bushkill DEM. Now click the Full View button (it is a picture of house) or click View > Full View.
  8. To see the DEM data with(out) hill shading, find the Enable/Disable Hill Shading button on the Shader toolbar (it has a sunburst in the lower left corner).
    Enable hill shading.
  9. You can alter the appearance of the DEM by choosing Tools > Configure, and changing the settings in Vertical Options and Shader Options.
    Try this: on the Vertical Options tab select Gradient Shader from the pick list. Then select the Shader Options tab and choose a color from each of the Low Color and High Color button in the Gradient Shader area. HIt the Apply button.
    Go back to the Vertical Options tab and experiment with the Vertical Exaggeration slider. HIt Apply.
  10. Again, you can view the metadata associated with the DEM data via the Tools > Control Center menu. Note the PIXEL dimensions reported in arc degrees, as opposed to something like meters.
A portion of the National Elevation Dataset viewed in Global Mapper software
Figure 7.8.3

Practice Quiz

Registered Penn State students should return now to the Chapter 7 folder  in ANGEL to take a self-assessment quiz about DLGs and DEMs. You may take practice quizzes as many times as you wish. They are not scored and do not affect your grade in any way.

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Students who register for this Penn State course gain access to assignments and instructor feedback, and earn academic credit. Information about Penn State's Online Geospatial Education programs is available at the Geospatial Education Program Office.