Articles | Volume 10, issue 3
Research article
23 May 2016
Research article |  | 23 May 2016

Mapping snow depth in alpine terrain with unmanned aerial systems (UASs): potential and limitations

Yves Bühler, Marc S. Adams, Ruedi Bösch, and Andreas Stoffel

Abstract. Detailed information on the spatiotemporal snow depth distribution is a crucial input for numerous applications in hydrology, climatology, ecology and avalanche research. Today, snow depth distribution is usually estimated by combining point measurements from weather stations or observers in the field with spatial interpolation algorithms. However, even a dense measurement network like the one in Switzerland, with more than one measurement station per 10 km2 on average, is not able to capture the large spatial variability of snow depth present in alpine terrain.

Remote sensing methods, such as laser scanning or digital photogrammetry, have recently been successfully applied to map snow depth variability at local and regional scales. However, in most countries such data acquisition is costly if manned airplanes are involved. The effectiveness of ground-based measurements on the other hand is often hindered by occlusions, due to the complex terrain or acute viewing angles. In this paper, we investigate the application of unmanned aerial systems (UASs), in combination with structure-from-motion photogrammetry, to map snow depth distribution. Compared to manual measurements, such systems are relatively cost-effective and can be applied very flexibly to cover terrain not accessible from the ground. In this study, we map snow depth at two different locations: (a) a sheltered location at the bottom of the Flüela valley (1900 m a.s.l.) and (b) an exposed location on a peak (2500 m a.s.l.) in the ski resort Jakobshorn, both in the vicinity of Davos, Switzerland. At the first test site, we monitor the ablation on three different dates. We validate the photogrammetric snow depth maps using simultaneously acquired manual snow depth measurements. The resulting snow depth values have a root mean square error (RMSE) of less than 0.07 to 0.15 m on meadows and rocks and a RMSE of less than 0.30 m on sections covered by bushes or tall grass, compared to manual probe measurements. This new measurement technology opens the door for efficient, flexible, repeatable and cost-effective snow depth monitoring over areas of several hectares for various applications, if the national and regional regulations permit the application of UASs.

Short summary
We map the distribution of snow depth at two alpine test sites with unmanned aerial system (UAS) data by applying structure-from-motion photogrammetry. In comparison with manual snow depth measurements, we find high accuracies of 7 to 15 cm for the snow depth values. We can prove that photogrammetric measurements on snow-covered terrain are possible. Underlaying vegetation such as bushes and grass leads to an underestimation of snow depth in the range of 10 to 50 cm.