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Saturday, June 3, 2023

Digital Elevation Model: What It Is and How It Works

Digital Elevation Model (DEM) is a three-dimensional representation of a terrain’s surface. It is a digital file that contains a set of elevation values for a specific area. DEMs are used in various applications, including flood mapping, land-use planning, and natural resource management.

DEM is created using remote sensing technologies like LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging), radar, and satellite imagery. These technologies collect elevation data by measuring the distance between the sensor and the ground surface. The data is then processed to represent the terrain’s surface digitally.

DEM is an essential tool for geospatial analysis, providing accurate and detailed information about the terrain. It can be used to create contour, slope, and hillshade maps, which are helpful in various fields, including geology, hydrology, and urban planning. DEMs are also used to create 3D models and virtual reality applications.

What is a Digital Elevation Model?

A Digital Elevation Model (DEM) digitally represents the Earth’s surface topography. It provides a 3D terrain view and is used to create maps, analyze landforms, and model natural processes. DEMs are made by gathering data from various sources and using complex algorithms to create a continuous surface of elevation values.


A Digital Elevation Model digitally represents the Earth’s surface topography. It is a grid of elevation values representing the height of the terrain above sea level. DEMs can be created at various resolutions, determining the level of detail seen in the model. Higher-resolution DEMs provide more detailed information about the terrain but require more data and processing power to create.

How is it created?

DEM data can be collected using various methods, including airborne laser scanning, satellite imagery, and ground-based surveys. Once the data is collected, it is processed using specialized software to remove errors and create a continuous surface of elevation values. The resulting DEM can be visualized as a 3D model or used to create maps and perform various types of analysis.


DEM data has various applications in various fields, including geology, hydrology, urban planning, and environmental management. Some common uses of DEM data include:

  • Creating topographic maps
  • Modelling natural processes, such as erosion and landslides
  • Analyzing terrain for engineering and construction projects
  • Estimating water flow and drainage patterns
  • Identifying potential flood zones

Overall, DEMs are a valuable tool for understanding the Earth’s surface and the processes that shape it. They provide a detailed view of the terrain, which can be used to make informed decisions about land use, natural resource management, and environmental protection.

Types of Digital Elevation Models

A digital elevation model (DEM) is a digital representation of the topography of a geographic area. DEMs are used in various applications, including terrain analysis, hydrology, and urban planning. There are several types of DEMs, each with advantages and disadvantages.

  • Raster DEM

Raster DEMs are the most common type of DEM. They are created by dividing the study area into a grid of equally sized cells and assigning elevation values to each cell. Raster DEMs are easy to make and process and compatible with most GIS software. However, they may need to accurately represent complex terrain features, such as cliffs or overhangs, and they can be computationally intensive to process.


TIN DEMs, or triangulated irregular network DEMs, use a set of non-overlapping triangles to represent the surface of the study area. These are more accurate than raster DEMs for complex terrain features and require less storage space. However, they can be more challenging to create and process and may only be compatible with some GIS software.

  • Hybrid DEM

Hybrid DEMs combine the advantages of raster and TIN DEMs. They use a raster grid for most of the study area and TIN triangles for regions with complex terrain features. Hybrid DEMs are more accurate than raster DEMs and easier to create and process than TIN DEMs. However, they may require more storage space than raster DEMs.

Accuracy and Resolution

Digital Elevation Models (DEMs) are widely used in various fields, including surveying, geology, and environmental science. The accuracy and resolution of DEMs are crucial factors that determine the quality of the model and its suitability for various applications. In this section, we will discuss the factors that affect the accuracy of DEMs, how to improve accuracy, and the importance of resolution.

  • Factors that Affect Accuracy

Several factors influence the accuracy of DEMs, including the data source, interpolation methods, and processing algorithms. The accuracy of the source data, such as LiDAR or stereo imagery, affects the accuracy of the final DEM. Interpolation methods, such as inverse distance weighting or kriging, can introduce errors if not used appropriately. Processing algorithms, such as filtering or smoothing, can also affect the accuracy of the DEM.

  • How to Improve Accuracy

To improve the accuracy of DEMs, it is crucial to use high-quality source data, appropriate interpolation methods, and processing algorithms. Ground control points (GCPs) can be used to improve the accuracy of the source data. GCPs are points with known elevations used to adjust the heights of the source data. Using multiple interpolation methods and comparing the results can help identify the most accurate way. Careful selection of processing algorithms and parameters can also improve the accuracy of the DEM.

  • Resolution and its Importance

The resolution of a DEM refers to the size of the grid cells that represent the elevation values. Higher-resolution DEMs have smaller grid cells and provide more detailed elevation information. The resolution of a DEM is essential for applications that require detailed elevation information, such as flood modelling or landslide analysis. However, higher-resolution DEMs need more storage space and processing power, which can be a limitation for some applications. Therefore, the resolution of the DEM should be selected based on the application’s needs.

Data Sources

Several data sources can be used when creating a digital elevation model (DEM). Each head has its own strengths and weaknesses, and the source’s choice depends on the project’s specific needs.

  • Topographic Maps

Topographic maps are a common source of elevation data. They provide a detailed representation of the Earth’s surface, including contours and other features. However, the accuracy of topographic maps can vary depending on the scale and age of the map. Additionally, topographic maps may only be available for some areas.

  • LiDAR

LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) is a remote sensing technology that uses lasers to measure the distance between the sensor and the ground. It can provide highly accurate elevation data, with a few centimetres or less vertical accuracy. However, LiDAR data can be expensive to acquire and process and may only be available in some areas.

  • Satellite Imagery

Satellite imagery is another source of elevation data. It can be used to create DEMs through photogrammetry, which involves using software to extract elevation data from overlapping images. Satellite imagery can cover large areas and is often freely available. Still, the accuracy of the resulting DEM can be affected by factors such as atmospheric conditions and the sun’s angle.

Software and Tools

When working with digital elevation models, various software and tools are available to help with processing and analysis. This section will cover some popular options in GIS software, DEM processing software, and online tools.

  • GIS software

GIS software is commonly used for working with digital elevation models. Some popular options include:

  • ArcGIS: a comprehensive GIS software that provides DEM processing and analysis tools.
  • QGIS is a free and open-source GIS software that provides DEM processing and analysis tools.
  • Global Mapper is a commercial GIS software with various instruments for DEMs.


  • DEM processing software

There are also software options specifically designed for processing and manipulating digital elevation models. Some popular options include:

  • DEMto3D: free software that can convert DEMs into 3D models.
  • Trimble Business Center: a commercial software that includes tools for processing and analyzing survey data, including DEMs.
  • Surfer is a commercial software that creates contour maps and 3D surface maps from DEMs.


  • Online tools

For those who prefer to work with digital elevation models in a web-based environment, there are also several online tools available:

  • Google Earth is a popular tool allowing users to view and explore DEMs in a 3D environment.
  • Cesium: an open-source platform for creating 3D maps and visualizations, which can also incorporate DEMs.
  • OpenTopography is an online resource that provides access to high-resolution DEMs and other topographic data.

Challenges and Limitations

  • Interpretation challenges

The interpretation of Digital Elevation Models (DEMs) can be challenging due to several factors:

  1. The spatial resolution of the data can affect the model’s accuracy.
  2. Interpreting DEMs can be subjective, and the results can vary depending on the person analyzing the data.
  3. The performance of DEMs can be influenced by the purpose for which the data is being used.
  • Data quality issues

Data quality issues can arise in DEMs due to various factors:

  1. The quality of the input data can affect the accuracy of the DEM.
  2. Errors can be introduced during the processing of the data.
  3. DEMs can be affected by data gaps or missing data, which can result in incomplete or inaccurate models.

It is important to note that DEMs are only sometimes suitable for all applications. For example, DEMs may not be ideal for applications that require high accuracy, such as engineering design or surveying.

  • Computational limitations

DEMs can be computationally intensive, and the processing of large datasets can be time-consuming. Additionally, the accuracy of the model can be affected by the computational algorithms used. Furthermore, DEMs can require significant amounts of storage space, which can be a limitation for some applications.

It is essential to consider these limitations when using DEMs and carefully evaluate the data’s suitability for the intended application.

Future Developments

As technology advances, the future of digital elevation models (DEMs) is exciting. Here are some potential developments to look out for:

  • Advancements in Technology

One of the most significant changes in the future of DEMs will be advancements in the technology used to create them. As remote sensing technology continues to improve, the accuracy of DEMs will increase. Also, LiDAR technology, already being used to develop high-resolution DEMs, may become more widespread.

  • New Applications

As DEMs become more accurate and detailed, new applications for this data will emerge. For example, DEMs could be used to predict and monitor natural disasters such as landslides and floods. They could also be used to understand better the impacts of climate change on the Earth’s surface.

  • Data Sharing and Collaboration

Another area of potential development is data sharing and collaboration. As more organizations create and use DEMs, there will be a greater need for data sharing and collaboration. This could create more standardized data formats and protocols, making it easier for different organizations to work together.

Overall, the future of DEMs is bright. With advancements in technology, new applications, and greater collaboration, we can expect to see even more detailed and accurate models of the Earth’s surface in future years.

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