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Geographic Information Systems Data Pathfinder

Visual representation of data layers or themes in a GIS

Visual representation of data layers or themes in a GIS. Credit: NASA.

A Geographic Information System (GIS) connects a wide range of geospatial data to a map and integrates location data (where things are) with various types of descriptive information (what things are like there). The vision of NASA's Earth Science Data Systems (ESDS) Program is to identify and deliver high value Earth science data in formats compliant and compatible with GIS standards; to ensure data are interactive, interoperable, accessible, and GIS-enabled through primary GIS platforms; and to provide the maximum impact to research, education, and public user communities requiring data visualization and spatial analysis. 

This Data Pathfinder provides links to resources for accessing and using GIS-based Earth science data and assumes a basic understanding of GIS and GIS-based applications. If you are unfamiliar with GIS or want more information about some of the terms and concepts described below, please see the Earthdata GIS Backgrounder. Additionally, the GIS Playlist on the Earthdata YouTube channel provides a variety of GIS presentations and tutorials.

While all NASA Earth science data are available without restriction, an Earthdata Login is required to download data and access some resources (including some resources noted in this Data Pathfinder). If you do not already have an Earthdata Login, you can set one up quickly and easily through the Earthdata Login page.

Working with Multidimensional Data in a GIS

Working with Multidimensional Data in a GIS

In recent years, GIS software has increased support for integrating multidimensional scientific data formats in their platforms. Two commonly used GIS software programs are QGIS and ArcGIS Pro. If you do not have these software packages, visit the following links for more information: 

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NOTE: ArcGIS Pro, on which some Use Cases in this Data Pathfinder are based, is designed to run on a Windows-based operating system. Esri provides an informational page for running ArcGIS Pro on a Mac-based operating system.

Tools such as QGIS and ArcGIS Pro integrate raster data using a mosaic dataset. In some GIS software platforms, a single mosaic dataset can then be used to query, process, analyze, and serve data. There are two ways to make a mosaic dataset that is multidimensional-aware. One option is to create a mosaic dataset by adding rasters using HDF, NetCDF, or GRIB raster formats that will import dimensional data and variable information into the mosaic dataset. The other option is to build a multidimensional information table to generate required multidimensional fields, metadata, and structure to make the dataset interoperable. To do this, you need to have a field in your mosaic dataset footprint table that identifies the variable in each raster and there needs to be either a time or height field to define one or more dimensions.

General tutorials:

If you need assistance in working with multidimensional data in GIS-ready formats, contact the ESDS GIS Team (EGIST). Additionally, the NASA Earthdata Forum provides a space for data users to connect with subject matter experts from NASA Distributed Active Archive Centers (DAACs) to discuss research needs, data, and data applications.

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Using NASA Data in a GIS

Using NASA Data in a GIS

Adding a Raster Layer | Adding a Vector Layer | Adding a Web Map Service

There are a variety of GIS applications available to users. The following examples show screenshots from QGIS, a free and open-source GIS application. Other GIS applications have similar options for adding layers.

Adding a Raster Layer to a GIS

  1. Under Layer/Add Layer, select "Add Raster Layer."
    Adding a raster layer in QGIS
  2. Select the file and click "add."
    You may need to modify the projection or symbology, both of which are in the layer properties. Layer properties can be accessed by double-clicking on the layer or by selecting "Layer/Layer properties." "Layer Properties" is the window title within QGIS and "Properties" is the window title in ArcGIS Pro.
    Modifying symbology on raster layer in QGIS
  3. At this point, you can visualize your data.
    Raster layer visualized in QGIS

Adding a Vector Layer to a GIS

  1. Under Layer/Add Layer, select "Add Vector Layer."
    Adding a vector layer in QGIS
  2. Select the file and click "add." Note: you can add the entire zip file, then select specific layers to add.
    Selecting vector layers to add in QGIS
  3. At this point, you can visualize your data.
    Visualizing vector data in QGIS

Adding a Web Service to a GIS

Some NASA DAACs provide geospatial services, specifically web map services (WMS), web map tile services (WMTS), web coverage services (WCS), and web feature services (WFS), that provide access to a variety of GIS-ready datasets. DAACs also are enabling image services that allow for analytic capabilities such as employing raster functions within GIS software and tools. Many of the URLs needed for data access are specific to the DAAC and, in some cases, are specific to the dataset. See Use Cases for Web Services to see examples for each service.

Additionally, NASA's Global Imagery Browse Services (GIBS) visualizations are accessible through standards-compliant web services (See Visualization Services in the NASA GIBS GitHub page). These services, specifically WMS and WMTS, allow users to access GIBS visualizations directly within many GIS client systems. The GIBS GitHub page Accessing via GIS Applications provides instructions for accessing GIBS visualizations through GIS clients.


  1. Under Layer/Add Layer, select "Add WMS/WMTS Layer."
  2. Click "New" to add a new end point using the specific URL, then click "Connect" to access the services available.

ArcGIS Pro:

  1. Insert > Connections > New [Type] Server to add a new end point using the specific URL.
  2. Click "OK" to connect and access the services available.


  1. Add Data > Add Data From Path > add a new end point using the specific URL.
  2. Click "OK" to connect and access the services available.
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Thematic Applications

Thematic Applications

NASA's ArcGIS DAAC Collaboration is producing a series of GIS-ready content that incorporates NASA Earth observations from multiple NASA applications into single thematic web maps and applications. Drought and Floods are the first in a series of thematic maps. Additional themes will include cyclones and air quality.


Monitoring Drought using NASA Earth Observation Data: The datasets in this StoryMap provide a means to monitor in near real-time the conditions leading to and resulting from drought as well as how humans may be affected. Datasets in the StoryMap include precipitation, soil moisture, vegetation surface reflectance, evaporative stress, normalized difference vegetation index (NDVI), and population density.


Monitoring Flood Conditions using NASA Earth Observation Data: Satellite observations can be used to help monitor the occurrence of floods and map areas most at risk of flooding. Datasets in this StoryMap include precipitation, soil moisture, and flood detection as well as infrastructure data such as reservoirs and dams.


The NASA Landslide Viewer enables users to monitor global landslide data from a variety of sources. Visualized data include citizen science landslide reports, Global Landslide Catalog data, and other landslide inventory data. Datasets in the application include current and historical landslide locations; landslide fatalities, hazards, and susceptibilities; and precipitation.

Energy Resources

NASA’s Prediction Of Worldwide Energy Resources (POWER) provides solar and meteorological datasets that support renewable energy, help evaluate energy efficiency in buildings and similar construction, and support agricultural needs. The POWER Data Access Viewer (DAV) contains geospatially-enabled solar, meteorological, and cloud-related parameters that are formulated for assessing and designing renewable energy systems. POWER provides various text, tabular, geospatial datasets, and files that users can download and integrate into custom software and applications for further processing, analysis, and visualization.

Screenshot of the POWER home page

Air Quality and Climate Anomalies

The NASA Air Quality and Climate Anomaly Viewer is an application that allows users to interact with air quality and climate data and overlay multiple relevant layers over a location.

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Use Cases for Web Services

Use Cases for Web Services

Web Feature Service | Web Coverage Service | Web Map Service | Image Service

NOTE: The following Use Cases and screenshots are created using ArcGIS Pro.

Web Feature Service (WFS) from NASA's Socioeconomic Data and Applications Center (SEDAC)

Storm surges from hurricanes pose numerous threats to human health and wildlife. In areas where Superfund sites may be inundated, the concern that toxins will be dispersed is great. However, the level of concern varies widely depending on the specific contaminants and their concentrations. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) assesses where Superfund sites exist, the vulnerability of these sites, and the risk to surrounding communities when a large storm surge is expected. This use case is adapted from a CNBC news article and the EPA Hurricane Harvey Report.

Concerned about an approaching hurricane expected to hit the panhandle of Florida, you want to look at Superfund sites in the area and the population density surrounding these areas to assess potential effects. Through SEDAC's WFS, you can directly access these data within a GIS.

To add a WFS:

  1. Proceed to Layer and "Add a WFS Layer."
  2. Provide a name and insert this URL: https://sedac.ciesin.columbia.edu/geoserver/ows?version=1.1.0
    Adding a WFS in QGIS
  3. Click "OK", then click "Connect."
  4. Features can now be added to the map viewer.

In this example, the following SEDAC layers were added:

  • Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry Hazardous Waste Sites
  • Gridded Population of the World, Version 4, Population Density

SEDAC superfund sites mapped with population density

Web Coverage Service (WCS) from NASA's Oak Ridge National Laboratory DAAC (ORNL DAAC)

According to NOAA'S Global Annual Temperature Rankings Outlook, the year 2020 was on track to be one of the warmest on record. Concerned about a changing climate, you want to access climatological data and generate an anomaly map for the month of January 2020. Through ORNL DAAC's WCS, you can directly access a data product called Daymet. Daymet is a collection of gridded estimates of daily weather parameters generated by interpolation and extrapolation from daily meteorological observations. Daymet data can be used to run raster-based functions to generate a 28-year time averaged map and then an anomaly map for 2020.

To add a WCS:

  1. Proceed to Layer and "Add a WCS Layer."
  2. Provide a name and insert the following URL: https://webmap.ornl.gov/ogcbroker/wcs?
    Adding a WCS in QGIS
  3. Click "OK", then click "Connect."
  4. Coverages can now be added to the map viewer.

In this example, the following ORNL DAAC layers were added:

  • Daymet: Monthly Climate Summaries on a 1-km Grid for North America (January months from 1990-2018)

ORNL Daymet data visualized in QGIS

Web Coverage Service (WCS) – SEDAC

Approximately half the original wetland habitats in the U.S. have been lost over the past 200 years. While part of this loss is the result of natural evolutionary processes, human activities (such as dredging wetlands for canals or draining and filling wetlands for agriculture, grazing, or development) are responsible for a large contribution to marsh habitat alteration and destruction. Wetlands in the U.S. state of Louisiana represent about 40% of the wetlands in the continental U.S.; however, they account for about 80% of U.S. wetland losses (from Louisiana Coastal Wetlands: A Resource at Risk).

Concerned about a changing climate, you conduct an analysis of coastal wetland loss from sea level rise using estimates of wetland losses as a basis for identifying potential adaptation measures. Through SEDAC's WCS, you can directly access elevation data, population density, and an urban extent grid within a GIS.

To add a WCS:

  1. Proceed to Layer and "Add a WCS Layer."
  2. Provide a name and insert the following URL: https://sedac.ciesin.columbia.edu/geoserver/wcs?
    Adding a web coverage service (WCS) in QGIS
  3. Click "OK", then click "Connect."
  4. Coverages can now be added to the map viewer.

In this example, the following SEDAC layers were added:

  • Global Rural-Urban Mapping Project, Version 1 (GRUMPv1): Population Density Grid for the year 2000
  • GRUMPv1 Urban Extents
  • Global Shuttle Radar Topography Mission (SRTM) Elevation above Sea-level at 1 km resolution

SEDAC population density mapped with urban extent and elevation within QGIS

Web Map Service (WMS) – NASA's Global Imagery Browse Services (GIBS)

A recent research article notes that, globally, fire activity changes along the productivity/aridity gradient. This relation should be driven by differing relative roles of the main fire drivers (weather and fuel) along the productivity gradient. In moist regions, fire activity is believed to be driven by drought frequency; in dry regions, fire is thought to be limited by the amount of fuel available.

You can test these ideas by comparing global fire activity. Using the GIBS WMS within a GIS, you can directly access Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) land surface reflectance (bands 7-2-1) data (which helps distinguish burn scars from naturally low vegetation or bare soil), fire and thermal anomalies data, and normalized difference vegetation index data.

To add a WMS:

  1. Proceed to Layer/Add Layer and "Add a WMS/WMTS Layer."
  2. Provide a name and insert the following URL: https://gibs.earthdata.nasa.gov/wms/epsg4326/best/wms.cgi
    Adding a web map service (WMS) in QGIS
  3. Click "OK", then click "Connect."
  4. Imagery layers can now be added to the map viewer.

In this example, the following layers from GIBS were added:

  • Thermal Anomalies and Fires (All (day/night) from the MODIS instrument aboard NASA's Terra satellite
  • Terra/MODIS 8-day Vegetation Index
  • Terra/MODIS Land Surface Reflectance (bands 7-2-1)

GIBS WMS layers of fire/thermal anomalies, NDVI and land surface reflectance mapped in a GIS

Many of the imagery visualization layers provided through GIBS are time-varying imagery layers, and the date/time can be changed directly through some GIS applications using the temporal controller or time slider functionality. GIBS provides instructions for enabling this capability, with a fixed temporal range or an animated one, within several GIS applications.

Image Service

This use case focuses on Hurricane Ida, which occurred in August 2021. Hurricane Ida was a deadly and destructive Category 4 Atlantic hurricane that became the second-most damaging and intense hurricane to make landfall in the U.S. state of Louisiana.

The demonstration below uses ArcGIS Pro and an ArcGIS Image Service derived from NASA's Integrated Multi-satellite Retrievals for Global Precipitation Measurement (IMERG) early dataset. This service estimates precipitation rate from multiple sensors and incorporates calibrations from climatological rain gauges. IMERG data are available at 30-minute intervals and updated every three hours, span from the year 2000 to present, and provide global coverage.

To add the Image Service:

  1. Locate the endpoint found from the public content item page.
    screenshot of GES DISC AGOL to access GPM IMERG Image Service

  2. From here you can choose to Open in the tool of your choice, in this case ArcGIS Pro, or copy the URL: https://arcgis.gesdisc.eosdis.nasa.gov/authoritative/rest/services/GPM_3IMERGHHE_06/ImageServer

The next step is to connect to the ArcGIS Image Service:

  1. Open ArcGIS Pro* > Add Data > Data from Path using the URL copied above.
    ArcGIS Pro GPM IMERGE Image Service

  2. Zoom to the area of interest, in this case the U.S. Gulf of Mexico area, specifically targeting the state of Louisiana.

* Note: An ArcGIS Image Connector plugin is available for QGIS.

To adjust data values and displays, you can adjust or remove the Processing Templates found in the Image Service Layer tab.

ArcGIS Pro Processing Templates for GPM IMERG

Focusing on Hurricane Ida, we want to specify the timeframe we are interested in so the service only displays the data from this event:

  1. Open the service Layer Properties from the Content menu.
  2. Select Time to establish the Time Extent, in this case: August 29-30, 2021.
    ArcGIS Pro Layer Properties for GPM IMERG

  3. This will be displayed on the map where you can play through the time series and watch the storm make landfall.

ArcGIS Pro Time Series Function

Using this image service, you can open and employ Raster Functions that are performed against the service itself. These can be found in the Analysis tab.

Examples include:

  • Unit Conversion to convert the original Millimeters per Hour to Inches per Hour
  • Clip to set the extent of the data to only use what is displayed in our current map extent
National Bridge Inventory

Using these outputs, you can extract values, adjust symbology, convert to polygon, and integrate other data to visualize and analyze relationships, patterns, and impacts.

In this demonstration:

  1. Add Data > Data.
  2. Under the Portal section, click to access Living Atlas.
  3. Search "bridges" and find the National Bridge Inventory.
  4. Add it to our map to identify critical infrastructure that is at risk from this storm.

Some NASA DAACs provide geospatial services, specifically WMS and WCS, that facilitate access to a variety of GIS-ready datasets. Links to these geospatial services can be found on the Earthdata geospatial services page.

Visit the Earthdata YouTube GIS playlist to access the following tutorials related to using IMERG to assess Hurricane Ida using GIS tools:

  • Part 1: Jupyter Notebooks: This demonstration shows how to view an image service and create a custom workflow using that service in a Jupyter Notebook.
  • Part 2: ArcGIS Online (AGOL) and ArcGIS Portal: This video navigates users around the NASA GES DISC ArcGis Portal and provides models on how to open an image service in the Web Map Viewer.
  • Part 3: ArcGIS Pro Processing Templates and Symbology: This tutorial highlights an ArcGIS Pro workflow that imports the image service into ArcGIS Pro using the Add Data option. It also shows how to use ArcGIS Pro’s visualization options to adjust the symbology of the imported web map.
  • Part 4: ArcGIS Pro Raster Functions: This video demonstrates how to change symbology, adjust processing templates, employ raster functions, and perform geoprocessing tasks to analyze data alongside public web services available from Esri’s Living Atlas of the World.

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Tools and Platforms to Discover NASA Data

Tools and Platforms to Discover NASA Data


NASA ArcGIS Online home page image with Earth and eight boxes for links to geospatial content.

NASA AGOL provides the capability to create and share NASA Earth science data with the public and interagency partners by bringing data to end users in an easy to use, cloud-based web platform.


The NASA Worldview Earth science data visualization tool provides the capability to interactively browse more than 1,000 global, full-resolution satellite imagery layers and then download the underlying data. Many of the available imagery layers are updated within three hours of observation, essentially showing Earth as it looks "right now." This supports time-critical application areas such as wildfire management, air quality assessment, and flood monitoring. Imagery in Worldview is provided by NASA's Global Imagery Browse Services (GIBS). Worldview also includes geostationary imagery layers from the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite (GOES)-East, GOES-West, and Himawari-8 satellites that are available at 10-minute increments for the last 30 days.

The Worldview Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership (Suomi NPP) Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) nighttime lights comparison image above shows power outages caused by Hurricane Maria in September 2017. The left image (acquired September 13, 2017) shows the island before Hurricane Maria. The right image (acquired October 30, 2017) shows power outages across island after Hurricane Maria. Click on the map to interactively explore this image.

Earthdata Search is the primary means for searching through the entire NASA EOSDIS data collection, discovering relevant datasets, and downloading data. Users (including those without specific knowledge of the data) can search for and read about data collections, search for data files by date and spatial area, preview browse images, and download or submit requests for data files, with customization available for select data collections.

In the project area, for some datasets, you can customize your granule. You can reformat the data and output in HDF, NetCDF, ASCII, KML, or GeoTIFF format. You also can choose from a variety of projection options and can subset the data, obtaining only the bands you need.

DAAC Tools

Many NASA DAACs provide Interactive Tools for GIS Data from which data can be visualized, subsetted, and downloaded in different file formats that are GIS analysis-ready.

NASA Langley Research Center (LaRC)  Atmospheric Science Data Center (ASDC) Portal for ArcGIS

The NASA LaRC ASDC Portal for ArcGIS features web maps created from data acquired by the Measurement of Pollution in the Troposphere (MOPITT) and Multi-angle Imaging Spectroradiometer (MISR) instruments as well as from POWER.

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Other Resources

Other Resources

DAAC StoryMaps

Cyclone Amphan: Cyclone Amphan was a deadly storm that hit India and Bangladesh in May 2020. This StoryMap shows the evolution of the storm using precipitation data from NASA’s Integrated Multi-Satellite Retrievals for Global Precipitation Measurement (IMERG).

Dizzy the Disdrometer: An interactive StoryMap from NASA's Global Hydrometeorology Resource Center DAAC (GHRC DAAC) to learn about the disdrometer instrument, the Global Precipitation Measurement (GPM) Ground Validation project, and where to find the data used during GPM field campaigns.

Mapping Deforestation: This "Data in Action" ArcGIS StoryMap at NASA's Land Processes DAAC (LP DAAC) maps deforestation in Cambodia using MODIS Land Cover and Vegetation Continuous Fields datasets to highlight land cover changes.

Screenshot of an image captured by Sentinel-1B of Hurricane Dorian off the north coasts of Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, taken on August 29, 2019. The image was processed using GAMMA software and contains modified Copernicus Sentinel data 2019, processed by ESA.Hurricane Dorian (2019) in Sentinel-1 SAR Imagery: NASA's Alaska Satellite Facility DAAC (ASF DAAC) has created a timeline showing images of Hurricane Dorian acquired by the Sentinel-1 satellites as the storm moved through the Caribbean and up the U.S. East Coast.

Changes in the Observed Tropospheric NO2 Column Density: Shows changes in the observed tropospheric nitrogen dioxide (NO2) column density over China before and after lockdowns enacted due to COVID-19.

Ice-Albedo Feedback in the Arctic: Provides information on sea ice extent in the Arctic and the drivers of changes in sea ice extent. The StoryMap also highlights the impact of increasing absorbed solar radiation and its effects on the ice-albedo feedback loop.

Global Air Quality: Uses the global annual gridded particulate matter with particles smaller than 2.5 microns (PM2.5) dataset from NASA's Socioeconomic Data and Applications Center (SEDAC) to observe trends over time and to assess the human impact of these changes.

Studying the 2019-2020 Australian Bushfires Using NASA Data: Guides users through the factors leading up to the 2019-2020 Australian bushfires disaster, the effect this event had on air quality and global atmospheric composition, and the science behind researching the correlation between disasters and public health. This StoryMap uses data archived at NASA's Atmospheric Science Data Center (ASDC).

The North Atlantic Aerosols and Marine Ecosystems Study (NAAMES): Provides information on the five-year NAAMES study that employed ship, aircraft, float and drifter, and satellite observations to study the annual plankton cycle in the North Atlantic Ocean.

NASA Harvest COVID-19 Dashboard: This StoryMap provides information about the NASA COVID-19 Dashboard as a holistic data-driven approach to assess COVID-19 impacts on agriculture and food security.

The 2020 Hurricane Season: The GPM Outreach Team created this StoryMap to provide information about the 2020 hurricane season.

Connecting Animal Ecologists to NASA Data: A project called Movebank uses data from the GPM mission and other NASA Earth observation satellites to better understand animal movement. This StoryMap profiles Sarah Davison, a Movebank "Data Curator" who helps match animal researchers with datasets they can use to better understand the animals and the ecosystems through which these animals travel.

Modern Hero Saves the Data!: Liz Saccoccia uses GPM and other NASA data to help people all over the world gain access to and understand information that might help them to address problems such as hunger and disease.

NASA Applied Sciences Disaster Portal

The NASA Applied Sciences Disasters Program Area area promotes the use of Earth observations to improve the prediction of, preparation for, response to, and recovery from natural and technological disasters.

My NASA Data

My NASA Data Earth System Data Explorer helps learners visualize complex Earth System datasets over space and time.My NASA Data is an initiative to develop microsets of Earth science data that are accessible, interesting, and useful to the K-12 and citizen scientist communities. My NASA Data provides a means of visualizing global datasets through its Earth System Data Explorer.

After selecting a dataset, the Earth System Data Explorer provides information about the source of the data and the units as well as a visualization of monthly data (note that there are a few daily datasets). Within the tool, users can compare multiple datasets, create line plots, produce animations, and perform computational requests (like computing average values over time).

Datasets of interest can be exported to a variety of desktop applications, including Ferrett, GrADS, and MatLab. The data also can be saved in ASCII, CSV, NetCDF, and arcGRID formats. ArcGRID and NetCDF formatted files can be opened as a raster layer in GIS applications. CSV files can be opened as a "delimited text" file.

My NASA Data also has a series of StoryMaps designed for educational use:

NASA Center for Climate Simulation

The NASA Center for Climate Simulation (NCCS) Spatial Analytics Platform provides a centralized geospatial platform that is integrated with NCCS’s high performance computing capabilities. The platform accelerates collaborative analytics through the use of advanced visualization and custom applications and can process vast amounts of data without significant performance degradation. NCCS has various ArcGIS web applications as well as StoryMaps.

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NASA's EOSDIS has numerous GIS Tutorials/How-Tos and Data Recipes to help you navigate the complexities of data processing and transformation to GIS use. If you are interested in receiving expert advice, check out the Earthdata Forum, where subject matter experts from NASA DAACs are available to discuss general questions, research needs, and data applications (within the “Search by Tags” box, under “Services/Usage” select “GIS Tools” from the dropdown).

Published July 10, 2020

Page Last Updated: Apr 22, 2022 at 5:06 PM EDT