I am downloading raster layers in R from Global Forest Change (https://earthenginepartners.appspot.com/science-2013-global-forest/download_v1.4.html, data produced by Hansen et al., 2013). Each raster has 40000x40000 raster cells (~30m pixels) and weight 20-600 Mb when compressed (so, more than 10Gb when working with).

The data is provided in tiles spanning 10x10º and I need to get the whole world. However, some of the tiles only comprise the ocean, which has value 0 for all pixels.

I am trying to find a way to unveil whether a downloaded tile is only ocean or contains some additional data. If it is just ocean, I can create a custom raster with the desired resolution, extent and value=0 instead of doing some calculation on the raster that takes time due to the files size and resolution.

I have tried with


inside and if() conditional, but that's an operation that takes a huge amount of RAM memory to perform for a single tile. I am trying to paralelize the process to use several cores for several tiles at the same time, and this is the only step where I run out of RAM memory and crashes the process.

Is there a different efficient approach to see if the values in the raster layer are only 0, so I can take a decision on the conditional about how to continue?

This code downloads an "ocean tile" (only ceros) and a "land tile" (additional values to cero):

temp_ocean <- tempfile()
download.file(as.character(https://storage.googleapis.com/earthenginepartners-hansen/GFC-2016-v1.4/Hansen_GFC-2016-v1.4_treecover2000_10N_120W.tif), destfile = temp_ocean)
ocean <- raster(file.path(temp_ocean))

temp_land <- tempfile()
download.file(as.character(https://storage.googleapis.com/earthenginepartners-hansen/GFC-2016-v1.4/Hansen_GFC-2016-v1.4_treecover2000_10N_080W.tif), destfile = temp_land)
land <- raster(file.path(temp_land))

Maybe it is just the way it is for such files, but I keep thinking that someone might come up with a different approach.

  • Using as.character(https://...) doesn't work for me - does it really work for you? what's wrong with putting the URL in quotes?
    – Spacedman
    Commented Feb 8, 2018 at 14:33
  • The https:// URL doesn't work for me, giving a certificate error, but changing to http:// seems to fix that.
    – Spacedman
    Commented Feb 8, 2018 at 14:34
  • unique is doing more than you need, since its computing all the unique values (which for a real-valued raster is going to be a lot of values). You really want to test for all(values(r)==0) in an efficient way, yes? A test like that should be able to short-circuit itself when it finds the first non-zero value without having to check the rest of the raster...
    – Spacedman
    Commented Feb 8, 2018 at 14:39

2 Answers 2


If no-land rasters has only 0's, the fastest approach is to know if contains a value larger than 0. Consider:

ocean <- raster(temp_ocean)
land <- raster(temp_land)

If you use maxValue(ocean) or cellStats(ocean, 'max') directly, the result will be 255. First, you need to compute min/max values prior to use one of these functions with setMinMax().

One approach is to use maxValue(setMinMax(raster)) inside if(). Let's check if this approach is faster (with only two replicas... is a slow process).

For ocean raster:

microbenchmark(a = if(length(unique(values(ocean))) != 1 ){print('land')}else{print('ocean')},
+                b = if(maxValue(setMinMax(ocean))){print('land')}else{print('ocean')}, times = 2, control = list(warmup = 0))
## [1] "ocean"
## [1] "ocean"
## [1] "ocean"
## [1] "ocean"
## Unit: seconds
##  expr       min        lq      mean    median        uq       max neval cld
##     a 165.04971 165.04971 169.86062 169.86062 174.67154 174.67154     2   b
##     b  57.05443  57.05443  57.17504  57.17504  57.29564  57.29564     2  a 

For land raster:

microbenchmark(a = if(length(unique(values(land))) != 1 ){print('land')}else{print('ocean')},
+                b = if(maxValue(setMinMax(land))){print('land')}else{print('ocean')}, times = 2, control = list(warmup = 0))
## [1] "land"
## [1] "land"
## [1] "land"
## [1] "land"
## Unit: seconds
##  expr      min       lq     mean   median       uq      max neval cld
##     a 258.7052 258.7052 261.6633 261.6633 264.6214 264.6214     2   b
##     b 114.0764 114.0764 122.4366 122.4366 130.7969 130.7969     2  a 

This approach seems to be faster, especially in no-land rasters. So, could be an option


To avoid overuse of RAM, instead of unique(values(r)), you could do unique(r)

The problem is that these are not well-formatted GeoTiff files, as they report min and max values that are not accurate. That is why you would need to use setMinMax to use maxValue as Aldo suggests.

However, you can directly use cellStats(r, "max"). It is not true, that you first need to do setMinMax for that.

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