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Topographic Wetness Index in QGIS

A Comprehensive Guide to Calculating the Topographic Wetness Index in QGIS

The Topographic Wetness Index (TWI) is a valuable metric for understanding where water is likely to accumulate in terrains with elevation variations. Using QGIS, a popular open-source GIS software, you can efficiently compute the TWI. Here’s a step-by-step guide to help you through the process.

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1. Setting Up Your Workspace

  • Launch QGIS and initiate a new project.
  • Import your Digital Elevation Model (DEM) into the Layers panel.

2. Interpolating Voids in the DEM

  • The DEM might have voids or pixels without data. These need to be interpolated for accurate calculations.
  • Navigate to Processing Toolbox > GDAL > Fill nodata.
  • Select your DEM as the Input layer and save the result as dtm_voidfilled.tif.

3. Calculating Slope in Degrees and Radians

  • First, calculate the slope in degrees: Raster > Analysis > Slope. Use the dtm_voidfilled as the Input layer.
  • Convert the slope from degrees to radians using the Raster Calculator. The conversion factor is approximately 0.01745.

4. Determining the Contributing Upslope Area

  • This step calculates the number of pixels that contribute flow to each specific pixel in the DEM.
  • In the Processing Toolbox, select SAGA > Simulation > Flow accumulation.
  • Use dtm_voidfilled as the DEM and save the Contributing Area as contributing_upslope_area.sdat.

5. Computing the Topographic Wetness Index (TWI)

  • With the slope in radians and the upslope contributing area determined, you can now calculate the TWI.
  • Use the Raster Calculator to implement the formula:
    [ TWI = \ln \left( \frac{a}{\tan(b)} \right) ]
  • ( a ) is the upslope contributing area (in square meters). Note: Multiply the contributing upslope area (in pixels) by the area of a pixel (e.g., 5m x 5m if each pixel represents a 5m x 5m area).
  • ( b ) is the slope in radians.
  • Save the result as twi.tif.

6. Visualizing the TWI in 3D

  • QGIS allows you to inspect the TWI results in a 3D view for a more immersive understanding.
  • Navigate to View > New 3D Map View.
  • Configure the scene settings, setting the Terrain Type to DEM (Raster Layer) and selecting the dtm_voidfilled layer for Elevation. Adjust the Vertical scale as needed to emphasize the terrain.


The Topographic Wetness Index provides a visual representation of areas prone to water accumulation based on topography. By following this guide, you can harness the power of QGIS to compute and visualize the TWI for any region, aiding in hydrological studies, environmental assessments, and more.

Frequently asked questions about calculating the Topographic Wetness Index (TWI) in QGIS:

1. What is the Topographic Wetness Index (TWI)?

Answer: The Topographic Wetness Index (TWI) is a terrain attribute that provides insights into the potential of a landscape to accumulate water. It’s a function of slope and the upstream contributing area. The TWI quantifies the topographic control on hydrological processes, indicating areas that are likely to be wetter or drier based on their position in the landscape.

2. Why is it important to interpolate voids in the DEM before calculating TWI?

Answer: Digital Elevation Models (DEMs) can sometimes contain voids or pixels with no data. These voids can disrupt the flow of water in hydrological modeling, leading to inaccurate results. Interpolating these voids ensures a continuous surface, allowing for a seamless flow direction and accumulation calculation, which are critical for accurate TWI computation.

3. What’s the difference between slope in degrees and slope in radians, and why do we need to convert between them?

Answer: Slope in degrees and radians are two different units of measuring angles. Degrees range from 0° to 360°, while radians are based on the radius of a circle and range from 0 to 2π. The conversion between them is essential because trigonometric functions, like tangent used in the TWI formula, typically operate using angles measured in radians for mathematical accuracy.

4. How does the contributing upslope area impact the TWI calculation?

Answer: The contributing upslope area represents the number of pixels that are upstream and contribute flow to a specific pixel. It’s a crucial component of the TWI formula as it quantifies the amount of water that potentially accumulates at a particular location. A larger upslope area indicates a higher potential for water accumulation, influencing the TWI value.

5. Why is the ZevenbergenThorne formula preferred for areas with less relief when calculating slope?

Answer: The ZevenbergenThorne formula is specifically designed to handle areas with gentle slopes or less relief. It provides a more accurate representation of the slope in such terrains compared to other methods, ensuring that the TWI calculations are precise and reliable for these landscapes.

6. What should I do if my slope calculation results in a value of 0 degrees?

Answer: A slope value of 0 degrees indicates a flat surface. While this is possible in some landscapes, it’s essential to verify the accuracy of the DEM in such cases. If the value is accurate, it suggests that water movement is primarily influenced by other factors, like soil type or vegetation, rather than topography.

7. How do I visualize the TWI results in a 3D view in QGIS?

Answer: QGIS offers a 3D Map View feature that allows users to visualize raster and vector data in three dimensions. To visualize TWI results in 3D, navigate to View > New 3D Map View. Configure the scene settings, setting the Terrain Type to DEM (Raster Layer), and select the TWI layer for Elevation. Adjust the Vertical scale as needed to emphasize the terrain.

8. Are there any specific DEM resolutions or types that work best for TWI calculations?

Answer: The accuracy and reliability of the TWI largely depend on the quality and resolution of the DEM. High-resolution DEMs capture more detailed topographic variations, leading to more accurate TWI calculations. However, the ideal resolution might vary based on the study’s scale and objectives. It’s essential to choose a DEM that accurately represents the study area’s topography.

9. Can I use TWI for applications other than hydrology, such as agriculture or urban planning?

Answer: Absolutely! While TWI is rooted in hydrological studies, its applications extend to various fields. In agriculture, TWI can help understand soil moisture patterns, aiding in irrigation planning. Urban planners can use TWI data to design infrastructure, ensuring they avoid flood-prone areas. Environmental scientists might use it for wetland habitat delineation and conservation planning.

10. What are the potential sources of error or inaccuracies when calculating TWI in QGIS?

Answer: Several factors can introduce errors or inaccuracies in TWI calculations in QGIS:

  • DEM Quality: A low-quality or inaccurate DEM can lead to erroneous TWI values.
  • DEM Resolution: A resolution that’s too coarse might miss finer landscape details, while an overly fine resolution might introduce noise.
  • Processing Choices: The methods and parameters chosen for filling sinks, calculating flow direction, and other processes can influence the results.

About the Author
I'm Daniel O'Donohue, the voice and creator behind The MapScaping Podcast ( A podcast for the geospatial community ). With a professional background as a geospatial specialist, I've spent years harnessing the power of spatial to unravel the complexities of our world, one layer at a time.

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