I would like to collate a library of terrain types and features, suitable as reference material for generating small scale artificial versions (for gaming or concept art). For example, I might wish to view a typical part of the Mojave Desert, or section of forest on the bank of a river in Yellowstone National Park, or part of the Florida Everglades, and use that to get a sense of typical height differences, surface types, plant cover - anything that would help visualise the area on a computer without needing to visit it in person.

I am interested in features important at a human scale that might affect navigating through an area, viewing it or otherwise experiencing it. I am also interested in collating a wide variety of terrain types in many small examples, as opposed to highly-detailed coverage of a single large area. So I am not looking for a map directly, but enough details to characterise real-world natural terrain.

The following properties of any data source would be interesting:

  • Area covered can be relatively small e.g. 100m x 100m, because I am looking for reference data for terrain types, not specific maps.

  • Digital Elevation Map at 30cm/point or better

  • Ground type map at 30cm/point or better, or scientific data for inferring this in context (e.g. spectrographic)

  • Plant ground cover classified by species or broader types (grasses, shrubs, trees).

  • Aerial photography with suitable resolution to cover human-scale features (e.g. 30cm per pixel)

  • Ground-level photography

I am not expecting to find all this neatly packaged for all possible types of natural location in a single data source (although that would be great). I am expecting instead to need to spend time and effort finding and extracting data I want from detailed surveys made for other purposes, where original data has been openly published.

Searches I have done often turn up DEMs of suitable quality (example: USGS Lake Mead), but I rarely find other data sources on the small-scale high-resolution I am interested in. I am not sure whether that is because the data sources do not exist, or because I don't know where or how to go looking.

Update: I am aware that "natural" is wooly term here. I mean to exclude building or structural plans and surveys, that is all. I would probably consider non-intensive farmland as "natural" for my purposes.

2 Answers 2


Elevation Data For high resolution DEMs, which I define as 1/9 arc-second (approx. 3m) or better in the horizontal plane, i use a combination of the National Map viewer (http://viewer.nationalmap.gov/viewer/) where you can select and view the availability of 1/9 arc-second data across the US. Here's a screenshot of the availability:

enter image description here

LIDAR collection is ongoing at the state and federal level (search USGS 3DEP program) but won't be complete for years. Individual states can sometimes provide higher resolution LIDAR or DEM data, and most have GIS clearinghouses. NY State's: https://gis.ny.gov/ Image of LIDAR availability at present for NY State:

enter image description here

Areal Imagery

The National Map viewer can also display the 1-foot aerial imagery coverage:

enter image description here

And and example of NY State's coverage:

enter image description here

Land Use

Other than the NLCD data set, which is too course for your purposes, I only know about the USFS Urban Tree Canopy assessment program (look it up, i can't post more links cause of my reputation). Here's a snapshot of what that data can look like:

enter image description here

The bottom panel is what I think they create.

Doesn't appear to be readily accessible; may have to request downloads. Only focused on urban/metropolitan areas. May provide the plant ground cover data you are looking for. You could also use the (non-spatial I think) Forest Inventory Analysis data from the USFS (http://www.fia.fs.fed.us/tools-data/), which provides species information, I think, and randomly assign it to different locations within either the UTC maps or other maps? Just a thought.

Edit: Just noticed the Philadelphia imagery is 4 inches!! I think this is a link to it, from checking out the metadata: http://www.pasda.psu.edu/uci/MetadataDisplay.aspx?entry=PASDA&file=PhiladelphiaCityMosaic2010.xml&dataset=1040

Also, now you have a link to the PA GIS clearinghouse.

Ground level photography?

The google street view API? Have no idea if that would be useful for you.

Hope this helps.

  • Thank you for this detailed answer. I am about to go on holiday, and cannot verify whether it answers my question for maybe 3 weeks. But rest assured that I am still actively interested the question, and I will make use of your answer, and research into the links you have provided. Commented Aug 5, 2014 at 9:00

this is really broad, so here's a few stabs in the dark. hopefully it can be consolidated with more answers into a good list:
aerial: http://landsat.usgs.gov/
plant ground cover: hardiness zone data...its actually not open but its been opened on github: https://github.com/kgjenkins/ophz
ground-level photography: perhaps searching flickr for geo-tagged, creative-commons licensed images? even then you'd have to filter...but its a start?

  • Thank you for the answer. I need to take a deeper look, but at first glance this is a great resource but sadly too course resolution (e.g. landsat is 30m resolution, two orders of magnitude out from what I am looking for, the hardiness zone data is even more course). I don't really expect much satellite data other than basic DEM will be suitable, I am probably looking for published ground-level or aerial surveys. Commented Jul 13, 2014 at 20:35
  • they probably are off....i looked for DEM actually and couldn't find 30cm....don't really care about points/score, was just trying to get the ball rolling. sorry if they're bunk
    – albert
    Commented Jul 14, 2014 at 13:19
  • have you looked at us census block maps? i don't think they're applicable because they're the inverse: populated areas, but i'm curious if that (minus the populated centers) is what you are seeking...they're also limited to the us
    – albert
    Commented Jul 14, 2014 at 13:21
  • lol. i meant bunk in this case. no worries
    – albert
    Commented Jul 14, 2014 at 13:28

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