Snow depth mapping with unpiloted aerial system lidar observations: a case study in Durham, New Hampshire, United States

Academic Article


  • Abstract. Terrestrial and airborne laser scanning and structure from motion techniques have emerged as viable methods to map snow depths. While these systems have advanced snow hydrology, these techniques have noted limitations in either horizontal or vertical resolution. Lidar on an unpiloted aerial vehicle (UAV) is another potential method to observe field- and slope-scale variations at the vertical resolutions needed to resolve local variations in snowpack depth and to quantify snow depth when snowpacks are shallow. This paper provides some of the earliest snow depth mapping results on the landscape scale that were measured using lidar on a UAV. The system, which uses modest-cost, commercially available components, was assessed in a mixed deciduous and coniferous forest and open field for a thin snowpack (< 20 cm). The lidar-classified point clouds had an average of 90 and 364 points/m2 ground returns in the forest and field, respectively. In the field, in situ and lidar mean snow depths, at 0.4 m horizontal resolution, had a mean absolute difference of 0.96 cm and a root mean square error of 1.22 cm. At 1 m horizontal resolution, the field snow depth confidence intervals were consistently less than 1 cm. The forest areas had reduced performance with a mean absolute difference of 9.6 cm, a root mean square error of 10.5 cm, and an average one-sided confidence interval of 3.5 cm. Although the mean lidar snow depths were only 10.3 cm in the field and 6.0 cm in the forest, a pairwise Steel–Dwass test showed that snow depths were significantly different between the coniferous forest, the deciduous forest, and the field land covers (p < 0.0001). Snow depths were shallower, and snow depth confidence intervals were higher in areas with steep slopes. Results of this study suggest that performance depends on both the point cloud density, which can be increased or decreased by modifying the flight plan over different vegetation types, and the grid cell variability that depends on site surface conditions.
  • Authors

  • Jacobs, Jennifer
  • Hunsaker, Adam G
  • Sullivan, Franklin B
  • Palace, Michael
  • Burakowski, Elizabeth
  • Herrick, Christina
  • Cho, Eunsang
  • Status

    Publication Date

  • March 24, 2021
  • Published In

  • The Cryosphere  Journal
  • Digital Object Identifier (doi)

    Start Page

  • 1485
  • End Page

  • 1500
  • Volume

  • 15
  • Issue

  • 3