Reading hdf files into R and converting them to geoTIFF rasters

I'm trying to read MODIS 17 data files into R, manipulate them (cropping etc.) and then save them as geoTIFF's. The data files come in .hdf format and there doesn't seem to be an easy way to read them into R.

Compared to other topics there isn't a lot of advice out there and most of it is several years old. Some of it also advises using additional programmes but I want to stick with just using R.

What package/s do people use for dealing with .hdf files in R?


  • Ok, so my MODIS hdf files were hdf4 rather than hdf5 format. It was surprisingly difficult to discover this, MODIS don't mention it on their website but there are a few hints in various blogs and stack exchange posts. In the end I had to download HDFView to find out for sure.

    R doesn't do hdf4 files and pretty much all the packages (like rgdal) only support hdf5 files. There are a few posts about downloading drivers and compiling rgdal from source but it all seemed rather complicated and the posts were for MAC or Unix and I'm using Windows.

    Basically gdal_translate from the gdalUtils package is the saving grace for anyone who wants to use hdf4 files in R. It converts hdf4 files into geoTIFFs without reading them into R. This means that you can't manipulate them at all e.g. by cropping them, so its worth getting the smallest tiles you can (for MODIS data through something like Reverb) to minimise computing time.

    Here's and example of the code:

    # Provides detailed data on hdf4 files but takes ages
    # Tells me what subdatasets are within my hdf4 MODIS files and makes them into a list
    sds <- get_subdatasets("MOD17A3H.A2000001.h21v09.006.2015141183401.hdf")
    [1] "HDF4_EOS:EOS_GRID:MOD17A3H.A2000001.h21v09.006.2015141183401.hdf:MOD_Grid_MOD17A3H:Npp_500m"   
    [2] "HDF4_EOS:EOS_GRID:MOD17A3H.A2000001.h21v09.006.2015141183401.hdf:MOD_Grid_MOD17A3H:Npp_QC_500m"
    # I'm only interested in the first subdataset and I can use gdal_translate to convert it to a .tif
    gdal_translate(sds[1], dst_dataset = "NPP2000.tif")
    # Load and plot the new .tif
    rast <- raster("NPP2000.tif")
    # If you have lots of files then you can make a loop to do all this for you
    files <- dir(pattern = ".hdf")
     [1] "MOD17A3H.A2000001.h21v09.006.2015141183401.hdf" "MOD17A3H.A2001001.h21v09.006.2015148124025.hdf"
     [3] "MOD17A3H.A2002001.h21v09.006.2015153182349.hdf" "MOD17A3H.A2003001.h21v09.006.2015166203852.hdf"
     [5] "MOD17A3H.A2004001.h21v09.006.2015099031743.hdf" "MOD17A3H.A2005001.h21v09.006.2015113012334.hdf"
     [7] "MOD17A3H.A2006001.h21v09.006.2015125163852.hdf" "MOD17A3H.A2007001.h21v09.006.2015169164508.hdf"
     [9] "MOD17A3H.A2008001.h21v09.006.2015186104744.hdf" "MOD17A3H.A2009001.h21v09.006.2015198113503.hdf"
    [11] "MOD17A3H.A2010001.h21v09.006.2015216071137.hdf" "MOD17A3H.A2011001.h21v09.006.2015230092603.hdf"
    [13] "MOD17A3H.A2012001.h21v09.006.2015254070417.hdf" "MOD17A3H.A2013001.h21v09.006.2015272075433.hdf"
    [15] "MOD17A3H.A2014001.h21v09.006.2015295062210.hdf"
    filename <- substr(files,11,14)
    filename <- paste0("NPP", filename, ".tif")
    [1] "NPP2000.tif" "NPP2001.tif" "NPP2002.tif" "NPP2003.tif" "NPP2004.tif" "NPP2005.tif" "NPP2006.tif" "NPP2007.tif" "NPP2008.tif"
    [10] "NPP2009.tif" "NPP2010.tif" "NPP2011.tif" "NPP2012.tif" "NPP2013.tif" "NPP2014.tif"
    i <- 1
    for (i in 1:15){
      sds <- get_subdatasets(files[i])
      gdal_translate(sds[1], dst_dataset = filename[i])

    Now you can read your .tif files into R using, for example, raster from the raster package and work as normal. I've checked the resulting files against a few I converted manually using QGIS and they match so I'm confident the code is doing what I think it is. Thanks to Loïc Dutrieux and this for the help!