How Aspect Creates Microclimates for South-Facing Slopes

Slope Aspect
Slope Aspect - South Point-of-View

What is slope aspect in GIS?

When the terrain is flat, there is no slope. This means that there is no aspect. But in the mountains, there are slopes in all directions.

There are north-facing, west-facing, south-facing and east-facing slopes. The compass direction that the slope faces is slope aspect. (More on that later)

…And there are some unique real-world applications of slope aspect:

  • Farmers seed crops depending on the amount of incoming solar radiation and aspect data.
  • Ecologists study aspect and microclimate for biodiversity.
  • And even recreational planners study slope direction to prevent avalanches.

Let’s look into this a bit deeper. How do you measure aspect? And where is aspect being used?

How do you read an aspect map?

The concept of an aspect map is really easy to understand. Aspect values indicate the directions the physical slopes face. Aspect directions are classified based on slope angle and a descriptive direction. An output aspect raster will typically result in several slope direction classes.

Here is an example of an aspect map:

Slope Aspect
Slope Aspect – South Point-of-View

If no slope exists, then the cell value will be -1. These are the grey cells in the aspect map above. Where slope exists, aspect is measured clockwise starting north as 0°. It returns back as 360° north again.

Here is how the default aspect maps are classified:

Flat (-1), North (0°to 22.5°), Northeast (22.5° to 67.5°), East (67.5° to 112.5°), Southeast (112.5° to 157.5°), South (157.5° to 202.5°), Southwest (202.5° to 247.5°), West (247.5° to 292.5°), Northwest (292.5° to 337.5°) and North (337.5° to 360°).

Aspect Legend

The aspect map above is from a south point-of-view. That’s why the shades in the map are mostly light green (south-east), light blue (south) and blue (south-west). When you rotate the map as a north point-of-view, than you see mostly purple (north-west), red (north) and orange (north-east):

Aspect North Point-of-View
Aspect North Point-of-View

How do you create an aspect map?

You will need a Digital Elevation Model (DEM) to generate an aspect map. Here’s a list of free global DEM data sources or free LiDAR data sources to help you get started.

You only need one input to create an aspect map. That one input is your DEM:

Free Global DEM Data Sources - Digital Elevation Models

After running the  Aspect tool , the output raster will be symbolized in the direction of slope. Each slope direction will represent a slope angle range.

You can reclassify the aspect map by changing the symbology and setting the number of classes. For example, if you only want to display north, east, south, west and flat classes in the color ramp, you can reduce the classes to 5. From here you can set breaks at -1, 45°, 90°, 135° and 180°.

Aspect Map

What are applications of aspect maps?

The direction a slope faces with respect to the sun (aspect) has a profound influence on vegetation, snowpack and construction. On top of that, exposure to wind are being researched as two aspect applications:

valley microclimate

Microclimate – Exposing slopes to sunlight with aspect data creates microclimate conditions – which are climates a small area has that is different from the area around it. For example, a south-facing that supports small woody plant species because it is much hotter and dryer and more desert-adapted. Compare this to a north-facing slope on the other side that receives more snow because it is shaded from direct sunlight during the winter and is protected from the wind. Consequently, the north-facing side has more water available to support trees and forests.

Specialized Agriculture – Cultivating south-facing slopes in the Swiss Alps using aspect data because it shelters from cold and dry winds which is critical to successful crop growth. Farmers also herd cattle and sheep on the Swiss Alps and move them away from the snow-covered peaks to the valley floor.

Ski Slope

Ski Slope Selection – Aspect maps are ideal in ski slope site selection because the slope direction determines how much incoming solar radiation directly hits the face of the slope affecting the overall quality of ski slopes. For this reason, north, north-west and north-east slopes are preferred for ski slopes.

Remnants Rainforest – Studying aspect data to find how remnants of rainforest (in Australia) are almost always found on east-facing slopes (with aspect) which are protected from dry westerly wind. Lower radiation loads results in reduced water-loss and are better protected from fires – helping rainforest species survive in these microclimates.

mountain house

Building Constraints – Prohibiting construction on south-facing slopes because they undergo more extensive freeze/thaw cycles. This freeze/thaw cycle can erode the ground beneath and reduce the overall stability. Aspect data can determine these prohibited building zones.

Vegetation Erosion – Finding the dominant vegetation types dependent on aspect and enhancing erosion modelling using aspect and vegetation to see how slopes will erode over time along with precipitation, temperature and growing periods. Also, land degradation by interpreting soil erosion and surface runoff has been extensively modeled using aspect.

Now, you try

The compass direction that the slope faces is your slope aspect.

You’ve learned some unique real-world applications of slope aspect such as mountain agriculture, building constraints and microclimate vegetation.

Aspect maps don’t necessarily have to be expressed as physical elevation values. Values can be represented as different factors such as pH and soil moisture.

Where have you used aspect? Let me know with a comment below.

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