LiDAR Beginning to Appear in Google Maps Terrain Layer    

Posted on Fri, July 30, 2010 by Chris Crosby in DataGoogle EarthGoogle Maps

One of my favorite features in Google Maps is the terrain layer, which provides a shaded relief (aka hillshade) view of the topography derived from a digital elevation model.  Google has done a nice job generating a visually pleasing terrain layer, and we use it for all of our Google Maps-based interfaces in OpenTopography.  Google appears to use a range of digital elevation model data sources to derive the terrain layer.  Throughout the US, it appears that the terrain layer comes from either 10 or 30 m (1/3 arc-second & 1 arc-second respectively) DEMs from the USGS National Elevation Dataset (NED).  Globally the terrain data appear to be derived from either Shuttle Radar Topography Mission (SRTM) data or something like the NOAA Global Land One-km Base Elevation Project (GLOBE) dataset.  Recently however, I’ve begun to notice higher resolution data in the Google Maps terrain layer.  These higher-resolution data are localized, and are patched into the terrain layer among the standard 10 and 30 m derived images, but they are impressive when you find them.  Based on the location of these patches of high-resolution terrain, and their appearance, it is pretty easy to deduce that Google is now incorporating bare earth LiDAR digital elevation models into the Google Maps terrain layer.

Thus far, I’ve noticed high-resolution data in downtown Portland, OR, the greater Los Angeles area, and Mount Saint Helens in Washington.  There may be other examples of LiDAR-derived terrain in Google Maps since I haven’t searched very hard.  If you are aware of other areas leave a comment.

Below are a few sites in Google Maps where you can clearly see the high-resolution data.

Downtown Portland, OR.  Data are sourced from the Oregon LiDAR Consortium managed by the Oregon Department of Geology and Mineral Industries (DOGAMI).  Note obvious building foundations, hillslope modifications, etc.:

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Edge of LiDAR near Washington Park in Portland - bare earth LiDAR on the east side, 10 m (?) data on the west:

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LiDAR bare earth data near Beverly Hills, CA.  I’m not sure of the origin of these data - does anyone know if the original LiDAR point cloud and DEM data are publicly available?:

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Obvious seam between LiDAR grids and lower resolution terrain data north of Yorba Linda, CA:

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Finally, the very impressive Mount Saint Helens data.  Presumably these are the data collected by NASA in partnership with USGS in 2003-2004 during a period of significant volcanic activity:

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It is really nice to see these high-resolution terrain datasets making it into such a common and easily accessible platform like Google Maps.  OpenTopography provides network-linked KMZ files to deliver LiDAR derived imagery data to Google Earth so that they are available to non-expert users, and direct incorporation of these data into the Google Maps terrain layer takes the accessibility of these data one step further.  As the number of public domain LiDAR data collections increases, I’d expect that we’ll see more examples of LiDAR appearing in maps and online visualizations accessible to the general public. 

An interesting, and logical follow on question to LiDAR in Google Maps, is when will Google will tackle the integration of high-resolution terrain data into the topographic mesh in Google Earth?  For the Earth science community, 1 meter terrain data in Google earth would be revolutionary.

looks like there is some high-res data north of Berkeley, CA as well (El Cerrito, Richmond) Might be wider than the NCALM/GES swath?

By: s delong on 07/30/2010

Nice blog post! Interesting and only to be expected...?!

By: Ramon on 07/30/2010

Nice find Steve.  It is definitely not EarthScope LiDAR.  Looks like Contra Costa county data.

By: C. Crosby on 07/31/2010

Excellent post, and good examples.

It is good to see this high-res data finally making it into wider usage - and a good resource for all to use fo rmanegment information and natural resource management.

By: Dr. Edward Wallington on 07/31/2010


I beleive the data is from world elevation suite from Digital Globe. Photosat ( has developed a technique of deriving 3D terrain data using an innovative method that is previously used in 3d geophysical siesmic studies.

This is an automated method of generating 3D data for large areas from satellite imagery. Photosat claims a 30 cm accuracy for this elevation data.

Thank you,

By: Meharaj on 08/27/2010

I’m almost 100% certain that the Portland and St. Helens data are lidar.  The LA data sure looks like bare earth lidar and since the PhotoSat DEM process uses imagery, I don’t think they can produce a bare earth DEM. 

PhotoSat used data from OpenTopography (specifically EarthScope data from the Garlock fault) to verify some of their GeoEye-1 satellite-based DEMs.  You can see the discussion of that comparison in this report:


By: C. Crosby on 08/27/2010

Hello CC

PhotoSat does produce bare earth DEMs using 50cm satellite imagery, although the examples above don’t look familiar to me.

The highest accuracies are achieved in areas of sparse vegetation since the satellite can see the ground directly. 

Satellite & GIS Data Consultant for PhotoSat

By: Johanna McWhirter on 12/16/2010

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