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Converting Coastline Data (GSHHG) to Shapefile Format

This example shows how to:

  • Extract a subset of coastline data from the Global Self-consistent Hierarchical High-resolution Geography (GSHHG) data set

  • Manipulate polygon features to add lakes and other interior water bodies as inner polygon rings ("holes")

  • Save the modified data set to a shapefile for future use in MATLAB®, or for export to a geographic information system

The Global Self-consistent Hierarchical High-resolution Geography (GSHHG; formerly Global Self-consistent Hierarchical High-resolution Shorelines, or GSHHS) data set, by Paul Wessel and Walter H. F. Smith, provides a consistent set of hierarchically arranged closed polygons. They can be used to construct base maps, or in applications or analyses that involve operations like geographic searches or the statistical properties of coastlines.

Step 1: Define a Working Folder

This example creates several temporary files and uses the variable workingFolder to denote their location. The value used here is determined by the output of the tempdir command, but you could easily customize this.

workingFolder = tempdir;

Step 2: GNU® Unzip and Index the Coarse-Resolution GSHHG Layer

GSHHG is available in wide range of spatial resolutions. This example uses the lowest-resolution data, from the binary file gshhs_c.b. A GNU zipped copy of this file is included in the Mapping Toolbox™ data folder, on the MATLAB path.

Use the MATLAB gunzip function to decompress gshhs_c.b.gz and create the file gshhs_c.b in the location indicated by workingFolder. Then create an index file, gshhs_c.i, in the same folder. In general, having an index file helps to accelerate later calls to the gshhs function. Note that when you use the 'createindex' option, gshhs does not extract data.

files = gunzip('gshhs_c.b.gz', workingFolder);
filename = files{1};
indexfile = gshhs(filename, 'createindex');

Step 3: Import the GSHHG Data for South America

Select data for a specific latitude-longitude quadrangle and import it as a Mapping Toolbox "geostruct" array:

latlim = [-60  15];
lonlim = [-90 -30];
S = gshhs(filename, latlim, lonlim);

If you have finished extracting data, you can remove the decompressed GSHHS file and the index file.


Step 4: Examine the Data Set

Examine the first element of the geostruct array S. In addition to the Lat and Lon coordinate arrays, note the various attribute fields that are present.

ans = struct with fields:
            Geometry: 'Polygon'
         BoundingBox: [2x2 double]
                 Lat: [1x972 double]
                 Lon: [1x972 double]
               South: -53.9004
               North: 71.9942
                West: 191.8947
                East: 325.2054
                Area: 3.7652e+07
               Level: 1
         LevelString: 'land'
           NumPoints: 971
       FormatVersion: 3
              Source: 'WVS'
    CrossesGreenwich: 0
            GSHHS_ID: 1

GSHHS comprises four levels of shorelines:

  • Level 1 - "Land"

  • Level 2 - "Lake"

  • Level 3 - "Island in lake"

  • Level 4 - "Pond in island in lake"

Check to see which levels the data you've imported includes. The Level field contains numerical level numbers.

levels = [S.Level];
ans = 1×3

     1     2     3

The LevelString field provides their interpretation. For example,

ans = 

shows that feature 104 is a lake (a Level 2 feature).

In this example, due either to the low resolution or to spatial subsetting, no Level 4 features are present.

Step 5: Extract the Top Two Levels into Separate Geostruct Arrays

This example manipulates the top two levels of the GSHHS hierarchy, inserting each "lake" into the surrounding land mass.

Extract GSHHS Level 1 (exterior coastlines of continents and oceanic islands):

L1 = S(levels == 1);

Extract Level 2 (coastlines of lakes and seas within Level 1 polygons):

L2 = S(levels == 2);

To see their spatial relationships, you can map Level 1 edges as blue lines and Level 2 edges as red lines:

axesm('mercator', 'MapLatLimit', latlim, 'MapLonLimit', lonlim)
gridm; mlabel; plabel
geoshow([L1.Lat], [L1.Lon], 'Color', 'blue')
geoshow([L2.Lat], [L2.Lon], 'Color', 'red')

Figure contains an axes. The axes contains 13 objects of type line, text.

Step 6: Merge Level 2 Polygons into Level 1

Define an anonymous predicate function to detect bounding-box intersections (returning true if a pair of bounding boxes intersect and false otherwise). Inputs A and B are 2-by-2 bounding-box matrices of the form

  [min(lon)  min(lat)
   max(lon)  max(lat)].
boxesIntersect = ...
    @(A,B) (~(any(A(2,:) < B(1,:)) || any(B(2,:) < A(1,:))));

For convenience in looping over them, copy the Level 1 bounding boxes to a 3-D array:

L1boxes = reshape([L1.BoundingBox],[2 2 numel(L1)]);

Check each Level 1 - Level 2 pair of features for possible intersection. See if polybool returns any output or not, but avoid calling polybool unless a bounding box intersection is detected first:

for k = 1:numel(L2)
    for j = 1:numel(L1)
        % See if bounding boxes intersect
        if boxesIntersect(L2(k).BoundingBox, L1boxes(:,:,j))
            % See if actual features intersect
            if ~isempty(polybool('intersection', ...
                L2(k).Lon, L2(k).Lat, L1(j).Lon, L1(j).Lat))
                % Reverse level 2 vertex order before merge to
                % correctly orient inner rings
                L1(j).Lon = [L1(j).Lon fliplr(L2(k).Lon) NaN];
                L1(j).Lat = [L1(j).Lat fliplr(L2(k).Lat) NaN];

Step 7: Save Results in a Shapefile

With a single call to shapewrite, you can create a trio of files,


in your working folder.

shapepath = fullfile(workingFolder,'gshhs_c_SouthAmerica');
shapewrite(L1, shapepath)

Step 8: Validate the Shapefile

To validate the results of shapewrite, read the new shapefile into the geostruct array southAmerica:

southAmerica = shaperead(shapepath, 'UseGeoCoords', true)
southAmerica=79×1 struct array with fields:

Note that the two longest fieldnames, 'FormatVersion' and 'CrossesGreenwich', have been truncated to 11 characters. This happened during the call to shapewrite and is unavoidable because of a rigid 11-character limit in the xBASE tables (.DBF format) used to store attributes in shapefiles. (In general, when writing shapefiles you may want to re-define fieldnames longer than 11 characters in order to avoid or control the effects of automatic truncation.)

Optionally, remove the new shapefiles from your working folder. (This example needs to clean up after itself; in a real application you would probably want to omit this step.)

delete([shapepath '.*'])

Display the geostruct imported from the new shapefile. Note the various "holes" in the South America polygon indicating lakes and shorelines of other extended bodies of water in the interior of the continent.

ax = axesm('mercator', 'MapLatLimit', latlim, 'MapLonLimit', lonlim);
ax.Color = 'cyan';
gridm; mlabel; plabel
geoshow(southAmerica, 'FaceColor', [0.15 0.8 0.15])

Figure contains an axes. The axes contains 90 objects of type patch, line, text.


Wessel, P., and W. H. F. Smith, 1996, A global self-consistent, hierarchical, high-resolution shoreline database, Journal of Geophysical Research, Vol. 101, pp. 8741-8743.

Additional Data

The complete GSHHG data set may be downloaded from the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) web site. Follow the links from


The GSHHG data file is provided in the Mapping Toolbox courtesy of Dr. Paul Wessel of the University of Hawaii and Dr. Walter H. F. Smith of NOAA.

For more information, run:

  >> type gshhs_c.txt

See Also

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