Journal of Geographical Systems

, Volume 1, Issue 2, pp 179-198

First online:

Terrain complexity and reduction of topographic data

  • Yue-Hong ChouAffiliated withDepartment of Earth Sciences, University of California, Riverside, CA 92521, USA (e-mail:
  • , Pin-Shuo LiuAffiliated withDepartment of Earth Sciences, University of California, Riverside, CA 92521, USA (e-mail:
  • , Raymond J. DezzaniAffiliated withDepartment of Geography, Boston University, Boston, MA 02215, USA (e-mail:

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Digital terrain data are useful for a variety of applications in mapping and spatial analysis. Most available terrain data are organized in a raster format, among them being the most extensively-used Digital Elevation Models (DEM) of the U.S. Geological Survey. A common problem with DEM for spatial analysis at the landscape scale is that the raster encoding of topography is subject to data redundancy and, as such, data volumes may become prohibitively large. To improve efficiency in both data storage and information processing, the redundancy of the terrain data must be minimized by eliminating unnecessary elements. To what extent a set of terrain data can be reduced for improving storage and processing efficiency depends on the complexity of the terrain. In general, data elements for simpler, smoother surfaces can be substantially reduced without losing critical topographic information. For complex terrains, more data elements should be retained if the topography is to be adequately represented. In this paper, we present a measure of terrain complexity based on the behavior of selected data elements in representing the characteristics of a surface. The index of terrain complexity is derived from an estimated parameter which denotes the relationship between terrain representation (percentage surface representation) and relative data volume (percentage DEM elements). The index can be used to assess the required volume of topographic data and determine the appropriate level of data reduction. Two quadrangles of distinct topographic characteristics were examined to illustrate the efficacy of the developed methodology.

Key words: Digital elevation models terrain complexity GIS
JEL classification: C0 C6 C8