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What is the difference between a Digital Surface Model (DSM) and a Digital Terrain Model (DTM)

In the realm of geospatial analysis and remote sensing, two critical types of data models play a pivotal role in shaping our understanding of the Earth's surface: Digital Surface Models (DSM) and Digital Terrain Models (DTM). Both models offer unique insights and applications, yet they differ significantly in what they represent about the Earth's surface. This article aims to demystify these models, highlighting their differences, applications, and how they complement each other in various projects.

What is a Digital Surface Model (DSM)?

A Digital Surface Model captures the Earth's surface's elevation data, including all objects on it, like buildings, vegetation, and other features. It represents the topmost layer of the earth's surface, providing a comprehensive view that includes both the natural terrain and the built environment. DSM is invaluable in urban planning, architecture, and telecommunications, where the height of surface objects is necessary for the analysis.

What is a Digital Terrain Model (DTM)?

Contrastingly, a Digital Terrain Model focuses solely on the bare earth's elevation data, filtering out buildings, vegetation, and other surface objects. DTM provides a "naked" view of the terrain, showcasing the natural landscape undisturbed by human-made or natural objects. This model is crucial for geological and environmental studies, flood modeling, and agriculture, where understanding the natural terrain's contours and features is essential.

Key Differences Between DSM and DTM

  • Object Inclusion: The most notable difference lies in what each model includes; DSM incorporates all surface features, while DTM presents the ground as if all surface objects were removed.
  • Application Areas: DSM is preferred in projects requiring an overview of the entire landscape, including built-up areas, whereas DTM is sought after for projects focusing on the natural terrain.
  • Data Processing: Creating a DTM from raw elevation data often requires additional processing to remove objects from the DSM, making DTM generation more complex and time-consuming.

Applications of DSM and DTM

  • Urban Planning and Construction: DSMs are essential for understanding how new constructions will fit into the existing landscape, assessing solar potential, and analyzing line-of-sight issues.
  • Environmental and Geological Studies: DTMs are used to study watershed and drainage patterns, soil erosion, and landform processes, providing insights into the natural environment.
  • Telecommunications: DSMs aid in planning telecommunication networks by helping to understand how terrain and buildings will affect signal propagation.
  • Flood Risk Assessment: DTMs play a critical role in flood modeling by offering a clear picture of natural water flow and accumulation areas without the interference of buildings or vegetation.

Choosing Between DSM and DTM

The choice between DSM and DTM depends on the project's specific requirements. For tasks requiring an understanding of the entire ecosystem, including man-made structures and vegetation, a DSM is most appropriate. Conversely, for projects focusing on the natural terrain and requiring detailed elevation data unaffected by surface objects, a DTM is preferable.


Both Digital Surface Models and Digital Terrain Models offer invaluable data for a wide range of applications, from urban development and environmental management to telecommunications and disaster preparedness. By understanding the differences and applications of each, professionals can select the most appropriate model to meet their project's needs, ensuring more accurate analyses and informed decision-making.


Andreas Nordansjö
Chief Marketing Officer
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