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pyDEM: Global Digital Elevation Model Analysis

Mattheus P. Ueckermann
Creare LLC, Hanover, NH

Robert D. Chambers
Creare LLC, Hanover, NH

Christopher A. Brooks
Creare LLC, Hanover, NH

William E. Audette III
Creare LLC, Hanover, NH

Jerry Bieszczad
Creare LLC, Hanover, NH


Hydrological terrain analysis is important for applications such as environmental resource, agriculture, and flood risk management. It is based on processing of high-resolution, tiled digital elevation model (DEM) data for geographic regions of interest. A major challenge in global hydrological terrain analysis is addressing cross-tile dependencies that arise from the tiled nature of the underlying DEM data, which is too large to hold in memory as a single array. We are not aware of existing tools that can accurately and efficiently perform global terrain analysis within current memory and computational constraints. We solved this problem by implementing a new algorithm in Python, which uses a simple but robust file-based locking mechanism to coordinate the work flow between an arbitrary number of independent processes operating on separate DEM tiles.

We used this system to analyze the conterminous US’s terrain at 1 arc-second resolution in under 3 days on a single compute node, and global terrain at 3 arc-second resolution in under 4 days. Our solution is implemented and made available as pyDEM, an open source Python/Cython library that enables global geospatial terrain analysis. We will describe our algorithm for calculating various terrain analysis parameters of interest, our file-based locking mechanism to coordinate the work between processors, and optimization using Cython. We will demonstrate pyDEM on a few example test cases, as well as real DEM data.


digital elevation model, hydrology, terrain analysis, topographic wetness index

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