I have an elevation raster and I would like to get some basic terrain variables, such as slope, ruggedness, aspect or curvature.

The problem is that I don't seem to have the possibility to calculate curvature with the terrain analyst:

enter image description here

Can anyone tell me why this indicator isn't in the list? How can I calculate it otherwise?


6 Answers 6


Curvature is a complex terrain derivative to compute, the equation that you use depends on the resolution of your input data, as you have to ensure that the curvature results you compute can be distinguished from noise in the data.

A lot of research has been done recently on curvature calculations on high resolution LiDAR data which showed that a scaling break exists at around 2 or 3 metres resolution and above this point more different algorithms (which I am not as familiar with) need to be used. The best information about calculating topographic curvature probably comes from Hurst et al 2012 and the references therein.

The basic principle of curvature calculation, as with slope and aspect, is to pass a moving window over the elevation surface and fit the elevation values to a 6 term polynomial function, the coefficients of which will yield the slope, aspect and curvature of the centre cell of the moving window.

ArcGIS uses a 3x3 search window which will only yield good results in areas completely devoid of vegetation, which makes the tool fairly useless unless people are aware of this limitation, this may suggest why it is not present in QGIS.

The maths was derived originally (I think) in Evans (1980) and was simplified in a few pages in Principles of Geographical Information Systems (Amazon link) which I can recommend as a good guide to this kind of terrain analysis at a basic level.

One way to calculate curvature of a DEM is to convert the DEM into an ascii raster, read it into a numpy array and then perform the polynomial fitting on a moving window passing through the data. This is fairly easy to do, but is very slow to execute and needs a fair amount of optimization (these kind of operations often get ported to c++ to speed them up).

To perform the operation in QGIS you can use the GRASS plugin r.slope.aspect which is also limited by the 3x3 fixed window.

I realize this is not the simple answer you were doubtless hoping for, but I hope you understand that curvature is complex to derive in a meaningful way. All the best.

Evans, I. S. (1980), An integrated system of terrain analysis and slope mapping, Z. Geomorphol., 36, 274–295.
  • Thank you for all the development! However, I was intrigued by the fact that the "Curvature" option is missing from the list in the raster terrain analyst of QGIS. Is is normal? I reinstalled my version of QGIS 1.8 to be sure, but it still isn't there :-/
    – Damien
    Commented Oct 18, 2012 at 13:51
  • 1
    note that in GRASS you can use 'r.param.scale' which computes terrain derivatives, such as curvature, with an user-defined size for the window operator (not just the default 3x3). Commented Mar 2, 2018 at 4:44
  • So many years later the Hurst link is broken. Is there more information on why the 3x3 window approximation (the same as the one here possibly?) is inappropriate and how this relates to this question on upscaling/coarsening the raster for computing curvature at coarser scales? gis.stackexchange.com/questions/119650/…
    – Heymans
    Commented May 5, 2023 at 18:05
  • I have updated the link so that it works again. In short, the smaller the window you use the more impact smaller scale features have on the resultant value. If you have 1m resolultion data and use a 3x3 window, you are measuring curvature across a 3 meter length scale. So if you want to measure small stuff, use a small window, and if you want general trends, expand the window.
    – sgrieve
    Commented May 15, 2023 at 8:56

ESRI's version of Raster Analysis for calculating curvature might be helpful to develop a plugin for QGIS.

For each cell, a fourth-order polynomial of the form:

enter image description here

Z = Ax²y² + Bx²y + Cxy² + Dx² + Ey² + Fxy + Gx + Hy + I

is fit to a surface composed of a 3x3 window. The coefficients a, b, c, and so on, are calculated from this surface.

The relationships between the coefficients and the nine values of elevation for every cell numbered as shown on the diagram are as follows: Curvature values diagram Curvature values diagram

A = [(Z1 + Z3 + Z7 + Z9) / 4 - (Z2 + Z4 + Z6 + Z8) / 2 + Z5] / L4

B = [(Z1 + Z3 - Z7 - Z9) /4 - (Z2 - Z8) /2] / L3

C = [(-Z1 + Z3 - Z7 + Z9) /4 + (Z4 - Z6)] /2] / L3

D = [(Z4 + Z6) /2 - Z5] / L2

E = [(Z2 + Z8) /2 - Z5] / L2

F = (-Z1 + Z3 + Z7 - Z9) / 4L2

G = (-Z4 + Z6) / 2L

H = (Z2 - Z8) / 2L

I = Z5

The output of the Curvature tool is the second derivative of the surface—for example, the slope of the slope—such that:

Curvature = -2(D + E) * 100

Full Information and source:


  • 2
    This is a great summary of the maths, but it can be simplified to use a 6 term polynomial with no discernible loss in quality, if your data has a resolution of below 3 meters.
    – sgrieve
    Commented Oct 18, 2012 at 13:43
  • 6
    Because the ESRI "curvature" depends only on D+E, all the rest is unnecessary. Computing -2(D+E)*100 as (100/L2)*(3*Z5 - [Z2+Z4+Z6+Z8+Z5]) shows how to obtain this value as thrice the original value, Z5, minus a neighborhood sum Z2+Z4+Z6+Z8+Z5 (using a radius 1 circle), all rescaled by 100/L2. That's just three simple grid operations.
    – whuber
    Commented Oct 18, 2012 at 15:02
  • @whuber: Can anyone tell me what is x and y? and is Z represents the value of curvature? then what is -2(D+E)*100? Is it possible that if i have a vector file having so many polygons and i want to know weather the area inside the polygon is concave or convex(plan and profile curvature)?
    – Hardik
    Commented Mar 7, 2013 at 13:39
  • Z = Elevation Value and -2(D+E)*100 = Curvature Value en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Curvature (Osculating_Circle)
    – Mapperz
    Commented Mar 7, 2013 at 14:46

The curvature could be calculated using SAGA's module 'Terrain analysis - Morphometry ---> Slope, Aspect, Curvature'

The calculation could be done based on one of these algorithms:

  • Maximum Slope (Travis et al. 1975)
  • Maximum Triangle Slope (Tarboton 1997)
  • Least Squares Fitted Plane (Horn 1981, Costa-Cabral & Burgess 1996)
  • Fit 2.Degree Polynom (Bauer, Rohdenburg, Bork 1985)
  • Fit 2.Degree Polynom (Heerdegen & Beran 1982)
  • Fit 2.Degree Polynom (Zevenbergen & Thorne 1987)
  • Fit 3.Degree Polynom (Haralick 1983)

LandSerf can do this .You can define windows size (3*3, 5*5, 7*7, 11*11,...) but it must be odd number. multiscale analyses. you can consider scale dependency of slope, Aspect and curvature. http://www.landserf.org/ LandSerf will fit co quadratic polynomial equation to specific predefined windows, but if you define big windows size like 50*50 it takes long time. It depends to your raster size and windows size which you define. Jo Wood wrote Landserf for his PhD thesis. It is written in Java.

  • Profile curvature
  • Plan Curvature
  • Longitude Curvature
  • Cross sectional Curvature
  • Mean curvature
  • Min curvature
  • Max curvature

Can be calculated in the different scale in LandSerf


You can also try free SAGA GIS (http://sourceforge.net/apps/trac/saga-gis/wiki) or TAS (http://www.uoguelph.ca/~hydrogeo/TAS/index.html).

  • Can you provide more detail on how these packages operate to calculate curvature? The links you have posted are general links to two GIS packages, and have no direct relevance to the question asked.
    – sgrieve
    Commented Oct 24, 2012 at 8:22
  • 1
    Sorry for very short answer. In SAGA you can find module Terrain Analysis - Compound Analyses --> Standard Terrain Analysis. There you can calculate curvature, profile curvature, plan curvature (there is no detailed description inside software help). You can import data into SAGA easy from asc, flt, ...
    – Rok
    Commented Oct 25, 2012 at 9:34
  • @sgrieve In TAS you can calculate profile, plan and tangential curvature (menu: Terrain Analysis-->Primary Terrain Attributes-->Surface Derivatives). Again, there is little description how it works.
    – Rok
    Commented Oct 25, 2012 at 9:43

Landserf gis has been written by J.Wood.you can analysis DEM, Aspect ,Slope, Plan curvature, profile curvature ,longitudinal curvature, and cross-sectional curvature,min,max, mean curvature, fractal dimension of DEM to different scale by defination of windows size .windows size should be odd.33,55, 77,99 11,11,....89*89 but it takes so long time.but result is very nice

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.