New Terrain Mode for Google Maps

Terrain in Google MapsGoogle has announced a new mode called Terrain for Google Maps which lets you see relief maps of 3D terrain. This is a very useful mode if you are going hiking, mountain biking, skiing, etc. in rough terrain areas. Or, if you just want to get an idea of the lay of the land when you’re looking at the map. They also got rid of the “Hybrid” button which showed roads and labels when you were in Satellite mode. Now, when you click on Satellite, you get a pop-up choice to add “Labels” – which does the same thing as Hybrid did. Check out this new terrain layer for your favorite hilly areas. The detail is quite good in most of the places I’ve checked. Zoom in closer for more detail.
New high resolution terrain in Google Earth - Grand CanyonOne of the best features of Google Earth is that it is a 3D virtual globe, not just a 2D map. So, when you tilt your view, the terrain is represented by actual 3D data. So, you can literally see details of the terrain like you were standing/floating there. However, the terrain is only as good as the resolution of the 3D data. Most of the world is represented in Google Earth by data from US Space Shuttle missions at 90 meters resolution. You may not see small hills, boulders, etc. In the US, New Zealand, Canaries, Switzerland, and parts of Canada – Google has added new higher resolution 3D terrain. Most of the new stuff is at 10 meter resolution. In West Virginia it is at 3 meters resolution! Google seems committed to continuing to add more areas of the world with better 3D terrain data. And, they are now adding terrain information to Google Maps as well. The more information the better!
By the way, you can also look at shaded relief maps in Google Earth as an overlay. See the example below. And, you can also overlay USGS topographical maps to Google Earth.

About Frank Taylor

Frank Taylor started the Google Earth Blog in July, 2005 shortly after Google Earth was first released. He has worked with 3D computer graphics and VR for many years and was very impressed with this exciting product. Frank completed a 5.5 year circumnavigation of the earth by sailboat in June 2015 which you can read about at Tahina Expedition, and is a licensed pilot, backpacker, diver, and photographer.


  1. It would be really neat if they allowed you to show those monochrome 3D terrain data as overlay in GE. Or an overlay with color-coded height would also be useful for presentation purpose for exemple.

  2. So cool. Glad you mentioned the shuttle mission, called SRTM, or Shuttle Radar Topography Mission, run by Jet Propulsion Laboratory with funding by NIMA (acronym may have changed, but it’s basically the defense department). I’ll brag a bit– my boyfriend worked on that mission, processing the data to weave shuttle-orbit-style strips into a whole continent’s worth of data. He’ll be tickled to know when I tell him tomorrow.
    And oh, yes, next time you hear utterances about wasteful government spending for that ole earth science stuff (who needs it?), consider this as one small taxpayer-funded dividend. Google didn’t take all their ad-revenue driven dollars to fund the mission that generated and then processed this elevation data; they took the freely-available data products and then put sweat and bucks to adapt it to this end.

  3. Mark Mulligan says:

    See also the terrain imagery in GE at

  4. Dunkleosteus says:

    The new Google Maps feature is very cool, no doubt of that and the feature is one that was sorely needed. It seems to be based on the same height data as is Google Earth, so for example Switzerland has very high resolution.
    If only Google got somewhere better height data for the rest of the world, especially for regions outside the SRTM mission region. My home region has considerably poorer than 90 m resolution. Since there are no high mountains here, the map looks almost perfectly flat even though the region is hilly. It’s not that there isn’t better data available, far from that.
    Since the new terrain mode represents a topographical map, it would be nice if more topological places were marked, especially rivers, capes, bays and such.

  5. ACiD, the anomolies you’re seeing are gaps in the DEM that didn’t completely fill in with interpolation methods. They’re common to see in mountainous regions.
    They’ll probably end-up re-processing portions where better interpolation is required to fill the gaps. They can go about that a variety of ways — but hopefully they choose to use a cross-method that uses interpolation calculated from a lower-res source for more accuracy. (Gap filling DEMs is rarely perfect, especially if additional data for an area simply doesn’t exist.)

  6. I’m just wondering what the colors stand for. It seems to be vegetation, but I’m not sure.

  7. Dunkleosteus, SRTM *did* get higher resolution data all around the world. That’s part of what makes it as cool as it is– that shuttle mission mapped most of the world in 11 days from space (it didn’t go higher or lower than 60th parallels). Cloudcover, a past hindrance to getting aerial elevation data, was no barrier for SRTM.
    You point out the item that makes a great counter-argument to my “taxpayer money spent on earth science” little rant: This work was paid for by the U.S. defense department.
    In the twisted military logic of national or operational security, it is advantageous for the higher resolution global data to stay secret. High-resolution elevation mapping of the US has happened before, so the US data were released in their higher-res form. Timing may have played a part here, too. The data were just starting to be processed for initial test map data sets when 9/11 happened, and the final proessing (on the JPL side) happened during Spring and Summer of 2002.

  8. Here is some Terrain views on Google Maps :

  9. jonathon says:

    My terrain overlay worked just fine for awhile, but it seems to just have disappeared. Any ideas anyone?

  10. I noticed in this blog post you state that Google uses the 90m SRTM. You wouldn’t happen to have an official Google reference for that statement? It is not that I don’t believe you, in fact I have no doubt that for most of the world they use the 90 m. I’m writing a proposal and I need to have a reference for the statement.

  11. Dave Asher says:

    “It would be really neat if they allowed you to show those monochrome 3D terrain data as overlay in GE. Or an overlay with color-coded height would also be useful for presentation purpose for exemple.
    I would LOVE for GE to be able to display the same “Terrain” mode image as Google Maps’ new terrain mode, but with the extra control over labels and features that GE allows. Hopefully, someone at Google reads this.

  12. I’d like to see the Terrain mode also have the option like Satellite to not show Labels. They distract from an appreciation of the terrain. And adding the bathymetry from Satellite view to Terrain, perhaps as an option, would make the geology of the Earth more obvious.
    Hopefully Google adds these options some day.

  13. What happened to this overlay in the new maps layout?

  14. need a map that is of underwater terrains and works on android device!

  15. I have tried to see this but it must be hidden somewhere… Where is the button for it????

    A feature I would value greatly is layers. For example, if I could remove roads, or borders, or others, when I have no use for them.

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