The Cryosphere, Volume 14, Issue 6

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Copernicus GmbH
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Improving sub-canopy snow depth mapping with unmanned aerial vehicles: lidar versus structure-from-motion techniques
Phillip Harder | John W. Pomeroy | Warren Helgason | Phillip Harder | John W. Pomeroy | Warren Helgason

Abstract. Vegetation has a tremendous influence on snow processes and snowpack dynamics, yet remote sensing techniques to resolve the spatial variability of sub-canopy snow depth are not always available and are difficult from space-based platforms. Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) have had recent widespread application to capture high-resolution information on snow processes and are herein applied to the sub-canopy snow depth challenge. Previous demonstrations of snow depth mapping with UAV structure from motion (SfM) and airborne lidar have focussed on non-vegetated surfaces or reported large errors in the presence of vegetation. In contrast, UAV-lidar systems have high-density point clouds and measure returns from a wide range of scan angles, increasing the likelihood of successfully sensing the sub-canopy snow depth. The effectiveness of UAV lidar and UAV SfM in mapping snow depth in both open and forested terrain was tested in a 2019 field campaign at the Canadian Rockies Hydrological Observatory, Alberta, and at Canadian prairie sites near Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada. Only UAV lidar could successfully measure the sub-canopy snow surface with reliable sub-canopy point coverage and consistent error metrics (root mean square error (RMSE) <0.17 m and bias −0.03 to −0.13 m). Relative to UAV lidar, UAV SfM did not consistently sense the sub-canopy snow surface, the interpolation needed to account for point cloud gaps introduced interpolation artefacts, and error metrics demonstrated relatively large variability (RMSE<0.33 m and bias 0.08 to −0.14 m). With the demonstration of sub-canopy snow depth mapping capabilities, a number of early applications are presented to showcase the ability of UAV lidar to effectively quantify the many multiscale snow processes defining snowpack dynamics in mountain and prairie environments.