Digital elevation model

A digital elevation model (DEM) is a 3D CG representation of a terrain's surface – commonly of a planet (e.g. Earth), moon, or asteroid – created from a terrain's elevation data. A "global DEM" refers to a Discrete Global Grid.


There is no universal usage of the terms digital elevation model (DEM), digital terrain model (DTM) and digital surface model (DSM) in scientific literature. In most cases the term digital surface model represents the earth's surface and includes all objects on it. In contrast to a DSM, the digital terrain model (DTM) represents the bare ground surface without any objects like plants and buildings (see the figure on the right).[1][2]

Surfaces represented by a Digital Surface Model include buildings and other objects. Digital Terrain Models represent the bare ground.

DEM is often used as a generic term for DSMs and DTMs,[3] only representing height information without any further definition about the surface.[4] Other definitions equalise the terms DEM and DTM,[5], equalise the terms DEM and DSM [6], define the DEM as a subset of the DTM, which also represents other morphological elements [7], or define a DEM as a rectangular grid and a DTM as a three-dimensional model (TIN).[8] Most of the data providers (USGS, ERSDAC, CGIAR, Spot Image) use the term DEM as a generic term for DSMs and DTMs. All datasets which are captured with satellites, airplanes or other flying platforms are originally DSMs (like SRTM or the ASTER GDEM). It is possible to compute a DTM from high resolution DSM datasets with complex algorithms (Li et al., 2005). In the following, the term DEM is used as a generic term for DSMs and DTMs.