Evaluating the effects of generalisaton approaches and DEM resolution on the extraction of terrain indices in KwaZulu Natal, South Africa

Jonathan Atkinson, Andrei Rozanov, Willem de Clercq


Digital elevation model (DEM) data are elemental in deriving primary topographic attributes which serve as input variables to a variety of hydrologic and geomorphologic studies. There is however still varied consensus on the effect of DEM source and resolution on the application of these topographic attributes to landscape characterisation. While elevation data for South Africa are available from several major sources and resolutions: Shuttle Radar Topographic Mission (SRTM), Earth ENV and Stellenbosch University DEM (SUDEM). Limited research has been conducted in a local context comparing the extraction of terrain attributes to high resolution Digital Terrain Data (DTM) such as LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) that are becoming increasing available. However, the utility of LiDAR to topographic analyses presents its own challenges in terms of operational-relevant resolution, processing demands and limited spatial coverage. There is a need to quantify the impact that generalisation approaches have on simplifying detailed DEMs and to compare the accuracy and reliability of results between high resolution and coarse resolution data on the extraction of localized topographic variables. In this regional study, we analyse the accuracy on selected local terrain attributes: elevation, slope and topographic wetness index derived from DEMs from varying sources, at different spatial resolutions and using three generalisation algorithms, namely: mean cell aggregation, nearest neighbour and hydrological corrected topo-to-raster. We show that topographic variable extraction is highly dependent on DEM source and generalisation approach and while higher resolution DEMs may represent the “true“ surface more accurately, they do not necessarily offer the best results for all extracted variables. Our results highlight the caveats of selecting DEMs not “fit-for-purpose” for topographic analysis and offer a simple yet effective solution for reconciling the selection of DEMs based on neighbourhood size resolution prior to terrain analyses and topographic feature characterization.

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