DEM Data Storage

Development of a structure for efficient storage of the DEM depends upon two factors: minimizing the size of the structure, and maximizing the retrieval speed. The two factors are interrelated, because if the data structure can allow significant blocks of the DEM to be loaded into memory, retrieval speed can dramatically decrease through bypassing disk access. Decreased costs for memory, both RAM and disk storage, allow microcomputers to easily manipulate large DEMs. Minimization of time-consuming real number arithmetic should also be avoided as much as possible.

Because both DEMs record data along a regular grid, the x and y locations (whether UTM or latitude/longitude) do not have to be stored but can be computed implicitly from a point's location within the data structure. Since elevations are recorded only to the nearest meter (foot for some 1:24K DEMs), they can be stored in binary form as integers. Use of the standard 2 byte integer type, with a range of -32767 to 32767, easily covers elevations on the earth's surface. While the data structure can be visualized as an x,y array, the computer does not manipulate it as a single array. Instead the computer uses a random access file, with each record in the file being a north-south elevation profile (stored as an array of elevations). The record number corresponds to the x coordinate and retrieves an array, with subscripts in the array corresponding to the y coordinate. By knowing the ground coordinates of the 0,0 point in the array (southwest corner) in either UTM or latitude/longitude and the data spacing, the ground coordinates of any data point can be easily calculated, or the data point corresponding to any ground point can be easily selected.

The two DEMs required slightly different design considerations. For the regular grid of the 1:250K DEM the only serious question concerned the size of data sets to use on the microcomputer. As supplied by NGA, the 1:250K DEM covers 1 by 1 areas. This contains 1.44 million elevations, and requires 2.88 Mb of computer storage. A 15' subset was originally chosen as the basic element for MICROFIX, with 90,601 elevations requiring 180 kb of disk space (which would fit on a floppy disk of that era). The original TerraBase used 30’ subsets, four times the size of the 15’ subsets. The naming schemes for 15' and 30' data subsets were compatible.

The clipped profiles of the 1:24K DEM required slightly more design decisions. The number of columns and rows in the data sets change, unlike the 1:250K DEM (which always has the same number of rows in each profile, but the number of columns changes north of 50 latitude). The corners of the data file are calculated from the corners of the map quadrangle. The southwest corner has the smallest x and y UTM values (northing and false easting) of any point in the data set, and the northeast corner has the largest x and y values. The corners may not be within the data set, and in general several columns on each side of the data set will have only a few values within the data set. Most columns will have several missing points at the top or bottom of the profile. Points outside the data set are flagged with MaxInt (32767) to allow fast determination when the edge of the data set is reached.

The 1:24K DEM supplied by USGS typically requires about 1.2 Mb of computer storage as an ASCII file (varies with latitude). Converted to binary form and a rectangular grid, the same data set requires about 358 kb, a compression of about 70%. A 1:250K DEM supplied by USGS required about 9.8 Mb as an ASCII file and 2.9 Mb as a binary file, also compression of about 70%. While the ASCII format contains some relevant information such as data set boundaries and profile end points, these points can be easily calculated from the base coordinates and the quadrangle elevation range are stored in the 132 byte header record.

For rapid data transfer, the binary data sets can typically be compacted 40-60% using data compression techniques, but must be de-archived before use.

As data spacing goes down, storage requirements go up dramatically. This means that the coverage area must decrease.

Approximate metric equivalents.


Last revision 2/28/2010