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This tutorial will review how to import spatial points stored in .csv (Comma Separated Value) format into R as a spatial object - a SpatialPointsDataFrame. We will also reproject data imported in a shapefile format, and export a shapefile from an R spatial object and plot raster and vector data as layers in the same plot.

R Skill Level: Intermediate - you’ve got the basics of R down.

Goals / Objectives

After completing this activity, you will:

  • Be able to import .csv files containing x,y coordinate locations into R.
  • Know how to convert a .csv to a spatial object.
  • Understand how to project coordinate locations provided in a Geographic Coordinate System (Latitude, Longitude) to a projected coordinate system (UTM).
  • Be able to plot raster and vector data in the same plot to create a map.

Things You’ll Need To Complete This Tutorial

You will need the most current version of R and, preferably, RStudio loaded on your computer to complete this tutorial.

Install R Packages

Data to Download

Download NEON Teaching Data Subset: Site Layout Shapefiles

These vector data provide information on the site characterization and infrastructure at the National Ecological Observatory Network’s Harvard Forest field site. The Harvard Forest shapefiles are from the Harvard Forest GIS & Map archives. US Country and State Boundary layers are from the US Census Bureau.

Download NEON Teaching Data Subset: Airborne Remote Sensing Data

The LiDAR and imagery data used to create this raster teaching data subset were collected over the National Ecological Observatory Network’s Harvard Forest and San Joaquin Experimental Range field sites and processed at NEON headquarters. The entire dataset can be accessed by request from the NEON Airborne Data Request Page on the NEON website.

Set Working Directory: This lesson assumes that you have set your working directory to the location of the downloaded and unzipped data subsets. An overview of setting the working directory in R can be found here.

R Script & Challenge Code: NEON data lessons often contain challenges that reinforce learned skills. If available, the code for challenge solutions is found in the downloadable R script of the entire lesson, available in the footer of each lesson page.

Spatial Data in Text Format

The HARV_PlotLocations.csv file contains x, y (point) locations for study plot where NEON collects data on vegetation and other ecological metrics. We would like to:

  • Create a map of these plot locations.
  • Export the data in a shapefile format to share with our colleagues. This shapefile can be imported into any GIS software.
  • Create a map showing vegetation height with plot locations layered on top.

Spatial data are sometimes stored in a text file format (.txt or .csv). If the text file has an associated x and y location column, then we can convert it into an R spatial object which in the case of point data, will be a SpatialPointsDataFrame. The SpatialPointsDataFrame allows us to store both the x,y values that represent the coordinate location of each point and the associated attribute data - or columns describing each feature in the spatial object.

Data Tip: There is a SpatialPoints object (not SpatialPointsDataFrame) in R that does not allow you to store associated attributes.

We will use the rgdal and raster libraries in this tutorial.

# load packages
library(rgdal)  # for vector work; sp package should always load with rgdal. 
library (raster)   # for metadata/attributes- vectors or rasters

# set working directory to data folder
# setwd("pathToDirHere")

Import .csv

To begin let’s import .csv file that contains plot coordinate x, y locations at the NEON Harvard Forest Field Site (HARV_PlotLocations.csv) in R. Note that we set stringsAsFactors=FALSE so our data import as a character rather than a factor class.

# Read the .csv file
plot.locations_HARV <- 
           stringsAsFactors = FALSE)

# look at the data structure

## 'data.frame':	21 obs. of  15 variables:
##  $ easting   : num  731405 731934 731754 731724 732125 ...
##  $ northing  : num  4713456 4713415 4713115 4713595 4713846 ...
##  $ geodeticDa: chr  "WGS84" "WGS84" "WGS84" "WGS84" ...
##  $ utmZone   : chr  "18N" "18N" "18N" "18N" ...
##  $ plotID    : chr  "HARV_015" "HARV_033" "HARV_034" "HARV_035" ...
##  $ stateProvi: chr  "MA" "MA" "MA" "MA" ...
##  $ county    : chr  "Worcester" "Worcester" "Worcester" "Worcester" ...
##  $ domainName: chr  "Northeast" "Northeast" "Northeast" "Northeast" ...
##  $ domainID  : chr  "D01" "D01" "D01" "D01" ...
##  $ siteID    : chr  "HARV" "HARV" "HARV" "HARV" ...
##  $ plotType  : chr  "distributed" "tower" "tower" "tower" ...
##  $ plotSize  : int  1600 1600 1600 1600 1600 1600 1600 1600 1600 1600 ...
##  $ elevation : num  332 342 348 334 353 ...
##  $ soilTypeOr: chr  "Inceptisols" "Inceptisols" "Inceptisols" "Histosols" ...
##  $ plotdim_m : int  40 40 40 40 40 40 40 40 40 40 ...

Also note that plot.locations_HARV is a data.frame that contains 21 locations (rows) and 15 variables (attributes).

Next, let’s identify explore data.frame to determine whether it contains columns with coordinate values. If we are lucky, our .csv will contain columns labeled:

  • “X” and “Y” OR
  • Latitude and Longitude OR
  • easting and northing (UTM coordinates)

Let’s check out the column names of our file.

# view column names

##  [1] "easting"    "northing"   "geodeticDa" "utmZone"    "plotID"    
##  [6] "stateProvi" "county"     "domainName" "domainID"   "siteID"    
## [11] "plotType"   "plotSize"   "elevation"  "soilTypeOr" "plotdim_m"

Identify X,Y Location Columns

View the column names, we can see that our data.frame that contains several fields that might contain spatial information. The plot.locations_HARV$easting and plot.locations_HARV$northing columns contain coordinate values.

# view first 6 rows of the X and Y columns

## [1] 731405.3 731934.3 731754.3 731724.3 732125.3 731634.3


## [1] 4713456 4713415 4713115 4713595 4713846 4713295

# note that  you can also call the same two columns using their COLUMN NUMBER
# view first 6 rows of the X and Y columns

## [1] 731405.3 731934.3 731754.3 731724.3 732125.3 731634.3


## [1] 4713456 4713415 4713115 4713595 4713846 4713295

So, we have coordinate values in our data.frame but in order to convert our data.frame to a SpatialPointsDataFrame, we also need to know the CRS associated with those coordinate values.

There are several ways to figure out the CRS of spatial data in text format.

  1. We can check the file metadata in hopes that the CRS was recorded in the data. For more information on metadata, check out the Why Metadata Are Important: How to Work with Metadata in Text & EML Format tutorial.
  2. We can explore the file itself to see if CRS information is embedded in the file header or somewhere in the data columns.

Following the easting and northing columns, there is a geodeticDa and a utmZone column. These appear to contain CRS information (datum and projection). Let’s view those next.

# view first 6 rows of the X and Y columns

## [1] "WGS84" "WGS84" "WGS84" "WGS84" "WGS84" "WGS84"


## [1] "18N" "18N" "18N" "18N" "18N" "18N"

It is not typical to store CRS information in a column. But this particular file contains CRS information this way. The geodeticDa and utmZone columns contain the information that helps us determine the CRS:

  • geodeticDa: WGS84 – this is geodetic datum WGS84
  • utmZone: 18

In When Vector Data Don’t Line Up - Handling Spatial Projection & CRS in R we learned about the components of a proj4 string. We have everything we need to now assign a CRS to our data.frame.

To create the proj4 associated with UTM Zone 18 WGS84 we could look up the projection on the spatial reference website which contains a list of CRS formats for each projection:

However, if we have other data in the UTM Zone 18N projection, it’s much easier to simply assign the crs() in proj4 format from that object to our new spatial object. Let’s import the roads layer from Harvard forest and check out its CRS.

Note: if you do not have a CRS to borrow from another raster, see Option 2 in the next section for how to convert to a spatial object and assign a CRS.

# Import the line shapefile
lines_HARV <- readOGR( "NEON-DS-Site-Layout-Files/HARV/", "HARV_roads")

## OGR data source with driver: ESRI Shapefile 
## Source: "NEON-DS-Site-Layout-Files/HARV/", layer: "HARV_roads"
## with 13 features
## It has 15 fields

# view CRS

## CRS arguments:
##  +proj=utm +zone=18 +datum=WGS84 +units=m +no_defs +ellps=WGS84
## +towgs84=0,0,0

# view extent

## class       : Extent 
## xmin        : 730741.2 
## xmax        : 733295.5 
## ymin        : 4711942 
## ymax        : 4714260

Exploring the data above, we can see that the lines shapefile is in UTM zone 18N. We can thus use the CRS from that spatial object to convert our non-spatial data.frame into a spatialPointsDataFrame.

Next, let’s create a crs object that we can use to define the CRS of our SpatialPointsDataFrame when we create it

# create crs object
utm18nCRS <- crs(lines_HARV)

## CRS arguments:
##  +proj=utm +zone=18 +datum=WGS84 +units=m +no_defs +ellps=WGS84
## +towgs84=0,0,0


## [1] "CRS"
## attr(,"package")
## [1] "sp"

.csv to R SpatialPointsDataFrame

Next, let’s convert our data.frame into a SpatialPointsDataFrame. To do this, we need to specify:

  1. The columns containing X (easting) and Y (northing) coordinate values
  2. The CRS that the column coordinate represent (units are included in the CRS).
  3. Optional: the other columns stored in the data frame that you wish to append as attributes to your spatial object

We can add the CRS in two ways; borrow the CRS from another raster that already has it assigned (Option 1) or to add it directly using the proj4string (Option 2).

Option 1: Borrow CRS

We will use the SpatialPointsDataFrame() function to perform the conversion and add the CRS from our utm18nCRS object.

# note that the easting and northing columns are in columns 1 and 2
plot.locationsSp_HARV <- SpatialPointsDataFrame(plot.locations_HARV[,1:2],
                    plot.locations_HARV,    #the R object to convert
                    proj4string = utm18nCRS)   # assign a CRS 
# look at CRS

## CRS arguments:
##  +proj=utm +zone=18 +datum=WGS84 +units=m +no_defs +ellps=WGS84
## +towgs84=0,0,0

Option 2: Assigning CRS

If we didn’t have a raster from which to borrow the CRS, we can directly assign it using either of two equivalent but slightly different syntaxes.

# first, convert the data.frame to spdf
r <- SpatialPointsDataFrame(plot.locations_HARV[,1:2],

# second, assign the CRS in one of two ways
r <- crs("+proj=utm +zone=18 +datum=WGS84 +units=m +no_defs 
                    +ellps=WGS84 +towgs84=0,0,0" )
# or

crs(r) <- "+proj=utm +zone=18 +datum=WGS84 +units=m +no_defs 
                    +ellps=WGS84 +towgs84=0,0,0"

Plot Spatial Object

We now have a spatial R object, we can plot our newly created spatial object.

# plot spatial object
     main="Map of Plot Locations")

Define Plot Extent

In Open and Plot Shapefiles in R we learned about spatial object extent. When we plot several spatial layers in R, the first layer that is plotted, becomes the extent of the plot. If we add additional layers that are outside of that extent, then the data will not be visible in our plot. It is thus useful to know how to set the spatial extent of a plot using xlim and ylim.

Let’s first create a SpatialPolygon object from the NEON-DS-Site-Layout-Files/HarClip_UTMZ18 shapefile. (If you have completed Vector 00-02 tutorials in this Introduction to Working with Vector Data in R series, you can skip this code as you have already created this object.)

# create boundary object 
aoiBoundary_HARV <- readOGR("NEON-DS-Site-Layout-Files/HARV/",

## OGR data source with driver: ESRI Shapefile 
## Source: "NEON-DS-Site-Layout-Files/HARV/", layer: "HarClip_UTMZ18"
## with 1 features
## It has 1 fields

To begin, let’s plot our aoiBoundary object with our vegetation plots.

# plot Boundary
     main="AOI Boundary\nNEON Harvard Forest Field Site")

# add plot locations
     pch=8, add=TRUE)

# no plots added, why? CRS?
# view CRS of each

## CRS arguments:
##  +proj=utm +zone=18 +datum=WGS84 +units=m +no_defs +ellps=WGS84
## +towgs84=0,0,0


## CRS arguments:
##  +proj=utm +zone=18 +datum=WGS84 +units=m +no_defs +ellps=WGS84
## +towgs84=0,0,0

When we attempt to plot the two layers together, we can see that the plot locations are not rendered. We can see that our data are in the same projection, so what is going on?

# view extent of each

## class       : Extent 
## xmin        : 732128 
## xmax        : 732251.1 
## ymin        : 4713209 
## ymax        : 4713359


## class       : Extent 
## xmin        : 731405.3 
## xmax        : 732275.3 
## ymin        : 4712845 
## ymax        : 4713846

# add extra space to right of plot area; 
# par(mar=c(5.1, 4.1, 4.1, 8.1), xpd=TRUE)

     ylab="northing", lwd=8,
     main="Extent Boundary of Plot Locations \nCompared to the AOI Spatial Object",
     ylim=c(4712400,4714000)) # extent the y axis to make room for the legend


       legend=c("Layer One Extent", "Layer Two Extent"),

The extents of our two objects are different. plot.locationsSp_HARV is much larger than aoiBoundary_HARV. When we plot aoiBoundary_HARV first, R uses the extent of that object to as the plot extent. Thus the points in the plot.locationsSp_HARV object are not rendered. To fix this, we can manually assign the plot extent using xlims and ylims. We can grab the extent values from the spatial object that has a larger extent. Let’s try it.

The spatial extent of a shapefile or R spatial object represents the geographic edge or location that is the furthest north, south, east and west. Thus is represents the overall geographic coverage of the spatial object. Source: National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON)
plotLoc.extent <- extent(plot.locationsSp_HARV)

## class       : Extent 
## xmin        : 731405.3 
## xmax        : 732275.3 
## ymin        : 4712845 
## ymax        : 4713846

# grab the x and y min and max values from the spatial plot locations layer
xmin <- plotLoc.extent@xmin
xmax <- plotLoc.extent@xmax
ymin <- plotLoc.extent@ymin
ymax <- plotLoc.extent@ymax

# adjust the plot extent using x and ylim
     main="NEON Harvard Forest Field Site\nModified Extent",


# add a legend
       legend=c("Plots", "AOI Boundary"),

Challenge - Import & Plot Additional Points

We want to add two phenology plots to our existing map of vegetation plot locations.

Import the .csv: HARV/HARV_2NewPhenPlots.csv into R and do the following:

  1. Find the X and Y coordinate locations. Which value is X and which value is Y?
  2. These data were collected in a geographic coordinate system (WGS84). Convert the data.frame into an R spatialPointsDataFrame.
  3. Plot the new points with the plot location points from above. Be sure to add a legend. Use a different symbol for the 2 new points! You may need to adjust the X and Y limits of your plot to ensure that both points are rendered by R!

If you have extra time, feel free to add roads and other layers to your map!

HINT: Refer to When Vector Data Don’t Line Up - Handling Spatial Projection & CRS in R for more on working with geographic coordinate systems. You may want to “borrow” the projection from the objects used in that tutorial!

Export a Shapefile

We can write an R spatial object to a shapefile using the writeOGR function in rgdal. To do this we need the following arguments:

  • the name of the spatial object (plot.locationsSp_HARV)
  • the directory where we want to save our shapefile (to use current = getwd() or you can specify a different path)
  • the name of the new shapefile (PlotLocations_HARV)
  • the driver which specifies the file format (ESRI Shapefile)

We can now export the spatial object as a shapefile.

# write a shapefile
writeOGR(plot.locationsSp_HARV, getwd(),
         "PlotLocations_HARV", driver="ESRI Shapefile")

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