GSDA:DEM Overview

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DEM Overview

Uses of DEM Data

There are many uses and applications of DEMs. GIS (Geographic Information System) software such as ArcView and ARC/INFO, as well as modeling software such as WMS (Watershed Modeling System) can use DEMs for many engineering and scientific applications. WMS uses DEM data to produce watersheds which are then used to model storm events, create hydrographs, route floods down rivers and through reservoirs, etc. This information can be used to design culverts, dams, detention basins and other hydraulic structures. DEM data are commonly used to create another type of digital terrain model called a TIN (Triangulated Irregular Network). Public domain software is available for tasks such as simply viewing a DEM—one example is dlgv32 Pro, a tool provided by the USGS.

With powerful modeling software such as WMS, using DEM data to run a model is not difficult, and can be accomplished in four general steps:

  1. Find and/or download the needed DEM data.
  2. Import the DEM(s) into WMS
  3. Delineate the watershed by inserting stream networks, one or more outlets, and reservoirs. If desired, a TIN can be created as well. Additional hydrologic data such as land use and soil type can also be used in WMS.
  4. Run the model and view the results. WMS supports several models such as HEC-1, NFF, Rational, TR-55, TR-20, HEC-HMS, and GSSHA.


DEM Definition

A DEM (Digital Elevation Model) is simply a digital map of elevation data. These maps, a type of DTM (Digital Terrain Model), are raster data meaning that they are made up of equally sized gridded cells each with a unique elevation.

DEMs come in different scales and resolutions. For example, 1:24,000 scale DEM is simply a USGS (United States Geological Survey) 7.5’ quadrangle that has been digitized and each cell in the DEM represents a block of terrain 30 meters x 30 meters. The 1:250,000 scale DEM (also known as a 1-degree or a 3 arc-second DEM) has a resolution of 90 meters x 90 meters. DEMs with better resolution are available, but require large amounts of computer memory and disk space and are often impractical to use for large areas of land. If an individual DEM does not cover the entire area of interest, then multiple DEMs can be tiled together to make one large DEM.

The projection and datum for a DEM varies. A common projection for DEMs is UTM (Universal Transverse Mercator) coordinates (meters) and have a specific datum associated with them. Elevations are usually in meters, but sometimes are in feet for areas of low relief, and are referenced to mean sea level.