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Using USGS DEMs in ArcView GIS

By GeoCommunity Staff

As GIS technology goes mainstream, we at the GeoCommunity have found a dramatic increase in the number of people downloading freely available data only to then be stumped when it comes to actually viewing or using the data. Data that is particularly troublesome for users is USGS SDTS formatted data. This article briefly examines how users can easily download USGS DEMS and use them in ArcView GIS.
Your software may not handle the SDTS DEMs available at the GeoCommunity web site. All SDTS DEMs available via the GeoCommunity were translated by the USGS according to the Federal Geographic Data Committee approved Spatial Data Transfer Standard (SDTS), Part 5: Raster Profile and Extensions (FGDC-STD-002.5-1999). This standard replaced a draft SDTS Raster Profile standard which was used to translate all SDTS DEMs previously available from the USGS site. Some slight differences exist between the two standards which (if hard coded in GIS software from the draft standard) cause application failures when using the new SDTS DEMs. A discussion of the differences and an initial work around will be posted at in early August.

For users of ArcView GIS, the quickest solution is to grab the SDTS2DEM translator developed by Gregg Townsend, Staff Scientist The University of Arizona. This translator is available for download at: Thanks to Gregg Townsend, Staff Scientist The University of Arizona for sharing this resource with The GeoCommunity.

Instructions For Use of SDTS2DEM

  • Get STD2DEM from
  • Run sdts2dem (make sure the exe is in the same directory as your dem data)
  • Enter first 4 characters of the SDTS file name (in this case its 7169) {you should have a number of files in your directory 7169CATS, 7169CEL0, 7169DDDF, etc...}
  • Enter first 4 letters of output file name - enter 7169 (or name of choice)
  • Enter 2 characters in post 7 & 8 from cell file (7169CEL0 in this case) - enter L0
  • you should now have the resulting file 7169.DEM
  • Your next step is to import the convert the .DEM file into a format supported by ArcView. You will accomplish this by creating a GRID file using the ArcView Import utility.
In ArcView:
  • Note: This excercise was done using ArcView 3.2. You will also require Spatial Analyst
  • File > Import Data Source > Import Data Type (USGS DEM) (select .DEM file you just created) > Output to grid file (this will write a "imgrd" folder by default)
  • If you wish to conduct additional 3D analysis and manipulation of the data, you might consider ArcView 3D Analyst

DEM displayed in ArcView (Click to enlarge)

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