Creating DEM from PASDA las files

The following is a description of how the maps discussed in the previous post were constructed. This information is provided in the spirit of open access and replicability. The following is a step-by-step guide to building digital elevation models (and their derivatives) from PASDA LiDAR data.

  • Download las tiles from PASDA.
    • Go to PASDA Imagery Navigator:
    • Zoom in on the area of interest.
    • Under the Display Tile Index drop down menu, select “Lidar Hillshade”
      • This will show you the tile index and the relevant file names
    • Place your cursor over a spot of interest and right click.
      • This will bring up a list of available data.
      • Click on the “LiDAR,, Topo and DEM” tab
      • At the right, you will see a listing of “LAS” files for download.
    • Select and download all the appropriate files.
  • Convert projection and reserve only category “2” points (2= ground return).
      • Note that Pennsylvania Data MUST be converted from NAD83 PA S (feet) to NAD83 PA S (meters)
      • Open las2las.exe
        • In the upper left, find and select all of the files from the above.
          • Note that you can use the wildcard (.las, not .laz as is the default)
        • Keep only ground points
          • Expand the “filter” menu
          • Select “keep_classification” under “by classification or return”
          • Under “number or value”, enter 2
        • Reproject from feet to meters.
          • Under “target projection” select
            • State plane 83
            • PA_S
            • Be sure “units” are in meters.

Your GUI should look something like this:


      • Choose an output location in the upper right.
      • Click “Run” (in the lower left; you may have to minimize (click the “-“))
      • In the command line, you should see something like:
        • las2las -lof file_list.7808.txt -target_sp83 PA_S –olaz
      • You should now have reprojected las files that include only the ground return.
    • Convert las files into smaller “tiles”
      • Open “lastile.exe”
      • Add the reprojected las files (actually now they should be laz files) in the upper left.
      • Choose a tile size of 1000 (for the above this means 1000 meters)
        • Choose a buffer of 25 (you need a buffer and just need to experiment with what works best for you.)

Your GUI should look like this:


    • Hit “Run”
    • The command line should look something like this:
      • lastile -lof file_list.1576.txt -o “tile.laz” -tile_size 1000 -buffer 25 -odir “C:\Users\Benjamin\Desktop\Working_LiDAR\Repoj_tile_las” –olaz
  • Convert tiles into DEM
    • Open “BLAST2DEM.exe”
    • Add the tiles constructed in previous section
    • Choose your output location
    • Choose “tif” for file format

Your GUI should look like this:


    • Click “RUN”
    • Your command line should look like this:
      • blast2dem -lof file_list.6620.txt -elevation -odir “C:\Users\Benjamin\Desktop\Working_LiDAR\DEM_tiles” –otif
    • Your DEM’s are now created.

From here, you will want to stitch the DEM’s back together, but you need a GIS program for that. You can use the open source QGIS.

  • Open QGIS
  • Click on Raster- Miscellaneous- Merge.
  • Select the “choose input directory instead of files” box
  • Select the destination location and file name.
  • Click “OK”-
    • I frequently get an error here, but the results appear complete.

At this point, all of your data should be in a single Geotiff file (be sure to save it) as a digital elevation model.

In order to complete the analysis in the previous post, I converted the DEM into a slope model, which shows high slope in lighter gray and low slope in darker gray.

  • To do this, all you need to do is, in QGIS, use Raster- Terrain analysis- Slope. The input is your DEM and the output is the new slope model.
  • Within QGIS, you should now be able to see maps similar to those shown in the previous post.

Finding Charcoal- LasTools + PASDA LiDAR data= Amazing!

For a long time, I have been interested in charcoal production on the mountains around the Lehigh Valley, which I first learned about along the Lehigh Gap Nature Center‘s  Charcoal Trail. I had hiked this trail many times before I discovered what the name meant. Along the trail are flat areas (around 30 feet [10 meters] in diameter) upon which colliers (charcoal makers) piled large mounds of wood that they charred to produce charcoal. One of the primary uses of that charcoal was iron production. Indeed, the area around the Lehigh Gap Nature Center (ok, a bit farther west) was owned by the Balliet family who owned and operated two iron furnaces, one on each side of the Blue (Kittatiny) Mountain (one in Lehigh Furnace, Washington Township and another in East Penn Township; and likely a forge in East Penn).

I became interested, but was not truly fascinated until I found and perused PASDA’s Imagery Navigator. Within the Navigator, you can view DEMs (digital elevation models) created from a LiDAR survey from around 10 years ago. To put it too simply, to collect LiDAR a plane flies over an area shooting the ground with lasers. Since the location of the plane is known (through an amazing combination of GPS and IMU) and the speed of light is known, lasers bouncing back to the plane effectively measure the distance to a “return”, which is an object, such as the tree canopy, a trunk, a roof, or the ground. A DEM is then constructed from the LiDAR point cloud. I wondered if this data could show me flat areas on the sloped landscape (like those clearly visible along the LGNC’s Charcoal Trail). They could!

I used the “hillshade,” which is a view of the landscape created by applying a light source to the DEM (digital elevation model). It’s as if all of the vegetation was removed from the landscape and it was painted gray with a sun shining on it from the NW at about 45 degrees. This way, I was able to identify over 400 charcoal pits over an area of approximately 100 square kilometers. .

So… many years later, I am finally doing something with this. My students and I, as a part of a Field Archaeology class, are investigating charcoal pits and the people who used them. More on this  part of the project another time.

In the meantime, my GIS skills have dramatically increased and I was lucky enough to attend a workshop on LiDAR (funded by NSF and run by NEON and Open Topography; a special thanks to Kathy Harring, Muhlenberg’s Interim Provost). I was interested in LiDAR for a new project that I am working on, but as a part of the workshop, we were to do a small “project” based upon new understandings and skills developed over the three days. I choose to download some of the original LiDAR data (props to Pennsylvania for providing all of this online) and build my own digital elevation model. The idea was that I could tweak it in order to see the landscape better. So, I started off just trying to remake the DEM provided via PASDA; that would at least show that I had developed some skills. However, just trying to do this resulted in spectacular results that have changed the way I conceptualize the landscape and our project.

Most importantly, the resolution of my reconstructed DEM is much, much greater than that of the DEM provided by PASDA. It is clear why this is true (see this description), but it is not apparent as it should be when viewing (or downloading) the PASDA DEM. PASDA provides a DEM based upon points that are categorized as “8,” which are “Model Key (thinned-out ground points used to generate digital elevation models and contours)”, not those categorized as “2,” which are “ground” points. So, I was working with all of the ground points and the PASDA provided DEMs were based solely upon a subsample.

Here’s what I found:

Here’s an image of one section of the area under study. This is original data from PASDA. Note the “eye-shaped” flat spots.


In the following image, I have marked all of the charcoal pits I could find with a blue dot.


This image shows the hillshade made from the DEM I built. Honestly, it doesn’t look terribly different from far above. Perhaps a bit more granular.


However, here’s a zoomed in comparison of the area just NE of the point in the lower left corner in the image above:





However, once I do a slope analysis, which shows flatter areas in darker gray and steeper areas in lighter gray, the charcoal pits (which are flat areas on a sloped landscape) literally leap out of the image.


The image below shows all of the all of the newly identified charcoal pits with red triangles. A landscape that I once thought had minimal charcoal pits (I wondered why… and was developing possible hypotheses) now appears to have been quite densely packed with charcoal pits.


Next post… details on exactly how I did the above. Hint- LasTools and QGIS.