Snow depth paper online

Yesterday our paper on snow depth measurements was published in The Cryosphere Discussions.  You can find it here

In short, we demonstrated that Fairbanks Fodar’s methods of measuring snow depths from the air are as good as can be measured from the ground with a probe, but we can measure entire watersheds at 10-20 cm resolution for less money than a ground survey measuring only a few transects.  For water balance studies this means no more extrapolations or guess work for winter precipitation (other than density), or for ecological studies the location of every drift can be mapped.  Perhaps more importantly, what this paper offers is rigorous validation of what we already knew – that we can detect and measure nearly any change in the cryosphere on the centimeter-scale by subtracting one of our maps from another.


Here is the abstract for that paper:

Mapping snow-depth from manned-aircraft on landscape scales at centimeter resolution using Structure-from-Motion photogrammetry
Matt Nolan, Chris Larsen, and Matthew Sturm

Airborne photogrammetry is undergoing a renaissance: lower-cost equipment, more powerful software, and simplified methods have significantly lowered the barriers-to-entry and now allow repeat-mapping of cryospheric dynamics at spatial resolutions and temporal frequencies that were previously too expensive to consider. Here we apply these techniques to the measurement of snow depth from manned aircraft. The main airborne hardware consists of a consumer-grade digital camera coupled to a dual-frequency GPS. The photogrammetric processing is done using a commercially-available implementation of the Structure from Motion (SfM) algorithm. The system hardware and software, exclusive of aircraft, costs less than USD 30 000. The technique creates directly-georeferenced maps without ground control, further reducing costs. To map snow depth, we made digital elevation models (DEMs) during snow-free and snow-covered conditions, then subtracted these to create difference DEMs (dDEMs). We assessed the accuracy (geolocation) and precision (repeatability) of our DEMs through comparisons to ground control points and to time-series of our own DEMs. We validated these assessments through comparisons to DEMs made by airborne lidar and by another photogrammetric system. We empirically determined an accuracy of ± 30 cm and a precision of ± 8 cm (both 95% confidence) for our methods. We then validated our dDEMs against more than 6000 hand-probed snow depth measurements at 3 test areas in Alaska covering a wide-variety of terrain and snow types. These areas ranged from 5 to 40 km2 and had ground sample distances of 6 to 20 cm. We found that depths produced from the dDEMs matched probe depths with a 10 cm standard deviation, and these depth distributions were statistically identical at 95% confidence. Due to the precision of this technique, other real changes on the ground such as frost heave, vegetative compaction by snow, and even footprints become sources of error in the measurement of thin snow packs (< 20 cm). The ability to directly measure such small changes over entire landscapes eliminates the need to extrapolate isolated field measurements. The fact that this mapping can be done at substantially lower costs than current methods may transform the way we approach studying change in the cryosphere.

Citation: Nolan, M., Larsen, C. F., and Sturm, M.: Mapping snow-depth from manned-aircraft on landscape scales at centimeter resolution using Structure-from-Motion photogrammetry, The Cryosphere Discuss., 9, 333-381, doi:10.5194/tcd-9-333-2015, 2015.

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