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Elevation data

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Looking for elevation data in your area? Our datasets are being continually updated. Check our elevation data products and our coverage maps for the latest data.

What is elevation data?

Typically, elevation data is represented in three different ways:

  1. Contour lines: Traditional topographic maps contain these lines which follow the shape of the land and indicate elevation of the terrain.
    Contour lines shown on a map. Lines that are close to each other represent steep slopes.
    Representation of contour lines on a traditional topographic map.
  2. Digital elevation models: These models represent the elevation of the land in a grid of squares. Each square (or pixel) in the grid contains the elevation value of the land it represents. Digital elevation models can be categorized into digital surface models (DSM), which include vegetation and buildings, and digital terrains models (DTM), which exclude them.
    Lines indicating what features are included in a DTM and a DSM. The DTM lines include the ground and the DSM lines include the buildings and trees.
    Diagram representing elements included in a digital surface model DSM versus a digital terrains model.
    Lines indicating what features are included in a DTM and a DSM. The DTM lines include the ground and the DSM lines include the buildings and trees.
    Black and white 3D reliefs of the surface of the ground. There are no buildings or trees included.
    Shaded 3D reliefs of a Digital Terrain Model (left image) and a Digital Surface Model (right image). The digital surface model​ includes vegetation and buildings on the surface of the ground.
  3. 3D points and point clouds: 3D points precisely represent information in a three dimensional space (x,y,z). A large dataset of 3D points is called a point cloud. A point cloud is composed of millions of 3D points that represent the relief of the land and the elements on its surface, such as buildings, vegetation and infrastructure.
    Example of a point cloud dataset clearly showing points reflecting the changing elevation of a building’s roof, the surrounding tree canopy, and the ground below.
    Example of a point cloud representing elements such as a building, trees and the ground.

Why is elevation data important?

We can use elevation data to help us understand the landscape around us, model it, plan efficient routes, and predict the impacts of climate change, including flooding.

High-resolution elevation data is used in many ways, including but not limited to:

Forest management

Precision farming

Geology and geohazards

How is elevation data collected?

Natural Resources Canada collects elevation data using different remote sensing methods. Both satellites and airborne light detecting and ranging technology (lidar) are used through its National Elevation Data Strategy.

An optical satellite orbits the earth in space. Image of an optical satellite that is used to acquire high-resolution satellite imagery.

High-resolution satellite Imagery

The high-resolution satellite imagery used in the strategy is manipulated using autocorrelation and photogrammetry techniques. By using two satellite images of a location taken at two different angles, we can extract information on the elevation of the surface to an accuracy of 1 to 2 m.

Photogrammetry is the science of extracting 3D information from photos or imagery.

Image of an aircraft acquiring data using airborne LiDAR.

Airborne lidar

For this method, a lidar sensor is installed on an aircraft which flies over the area of interest. The sensor uses laser beams to capture the precise location of the ground and its land cover, even below the tree canopy, with an accuracy of a few centimeters! All this information is saved as detailed 3D lidar point clouds and can lead to the development of very accurate digital elevation models.


A lidar scan creates a large dataset of 3D points collected for a given geographical area, known as a point cloud.

Increasing the availability and coverage of elevation data

Canada’s National Elevation Data Strategy set out objectives, working with provincial and territorial governments, municipalities and Indigenous communities to:

  • gather higher resolution data across the country
  • capitalize on past and future investments
  • improve access to Canadian data
  • standardizing elevation data
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