How To Display and Measure Elevation Data in Google Earth

Google Earth is a powerful geospatial software that allows users to visualize the Earth in 3D, view satellite imagery, maps, terrain, and 3D buildings. One of the key features of Google Earth is its ability to display and measure elevation data across the globe.

Displaying Elevation Data

There are a few ways to view elevation data in Google Earth:

1. Enable the Terrain Layer

  • Open Google Earth and click on the Layers icon on the bottom left
  • Check the box next to “Terrain” to enable the terrain layer
  • This shades the terrain based on elevation – higher areas appear darker, lower areas appear lighter

2. Show Elevation Profile

  • Create a path by clicking on the Add Path icon and tracing a route
  • Right click on the path and select “Show Elevation Profile”
  • This displays an elevation chart below the 3D viewer showing elevation changes along that path

3. Enable Contours

  • From the top menu, click View > 3D Buildings > Show Contours
  • Contour lines representing different elevation levels will now be overlaid on the terrain

4. View Current Elevation

  • As you move your mouse in the 3D viewer, the current elevation is displayed in the bottom right corner

Measuring Elevation Data

In addition to displaying elevation visually, you can also quantitatively measure elevation data in Google Earth:

1. Measure Distance and Elevation Along a Path

  • Create a path along the route you want to measure
  • The total path distance and elevation gain/loss is shown in the path properties
  • You can also click along the path to get elevation and distance values at that point

2. Show Elevation and Coordinates

  • As you move your mouse, the current elevation and geographic coordinates are shown at the bottom right
  • This allows you to measure exact elevation and location anywhere on the terrain

3. Use the Ruler Tool

  • Click on the Ruler icon to enable the ruler tool
  • Click points along a path to add vertices and measure distance and azimuth between points
  • The elevation at each vertex is also displayed

4. Measure Building Heights

  • Enable the ruler tool
  • Click the base and top corners of a building to calculate its height


Being able to accurately display and measure elevation data makes Google Earth extremely valuable for:

  • Outdoor Recreation – Plan hiking, biking, or climbing routes by viewing elevation profiles
  • Surveying – Take precise elevation and coordinate measurements for surveying purposes
  • Infrastructure Planning – Model terrain to determine optimal locations and alignments for infrastructure like roads, railways, and pipelines
  • Emergency Response – Create flood models and assess damage based on elevation data
  • Geography Education – Have students measure geographical features like mountain peaks as an interactive learning activity

Tips for Best Results

Follow these tips when working with elevation data in Google Earth:

  • Enable terrain detail under View > 3D Buildings for sharper terrain resolution
  • Use higher camera angles (over 45°) to improve display of elevation layers
  • Create large, flattened polygons to provide base surfaces for more legible contour lines
  • Use the ruler tool to take precise spot measurements of elevation and coordinates
  • Double check elevation values against external sources where accuracy is critical

With its multi-scale 3D visualization and built-in measurement tools, Google Earth brings elevation data to life. Whether you’re hiking the Himalayas or planning a new subdivision, Google Earth has the terrain analysis capabilities to meet your needs.

My Experience with Google Earth Elevation Data

As a GIS analyst, I have used Google Earth’s elevation data extensively for infrastructure planning and outdoor recreation projects. The ability to accurately map terrain in 3D provides tremendous value.

For example, I have modeled river corridors to determine flood levels and risks based on the high resolution elevation data in Google Earth. I have also used the elevation profile tool to scout potential routes for new hiking trails by looking at elevation change and slope.

The ruler tool has proven invaluable for quick spot checks of elevation and coordinates when doing field surveys. And the seamless integration with Google Maps makes it easy to correlate the elevation terrain with map features and imagery.

While external elevation datasets can provide more precise and up-to-date values, Google Earth offers an interactive 3D visualization and analysis capabilities that cannot be matched. It is an indispensable part of my GIS toolkit.