Articles | Volume 10, issue 4
Research article
18 Jul 2016
Research article |  | 18 Jul 2016

Design of a scanning laser meter for monitoring the spatio-temporal evolution of snow depth and its application in the Alps and in Antarctica

Ghislain Picard, Laurent Arnaud, Jean-Michel Panel, and Samuel Morin

Abstract. Although both the temporal and spatial variations of the snow depth are usually of interest for numerous applications, available measurement techniques are either space-oriented (e.g. terrestrial laser scans) or time-oriented (e.g. ultrasonic ranging probe). Because of snow heterogeneity, measuring depth in a single point is insufficient to provide accurate and representative estimates. We present a cost-effective automatic instrument to acquire spatio-temporal variations of snow depth. The device comprises a laser meter mounted on a 2-axis stage and can scan  ≈  200 000 points over an area of 100–200 m2 in 4 h. Two instruments, installed in Antarctica (Dome C) and the French Alps (Col de Porte), have been operating continuously and unattended over 2015 with a success rate of 65 and 90 % respectively. The precision of single point measurements and long-term stability were evaluated to be about 1 cm and the accuracy to be 5 cm or better. The spatial variability in the scanned area reached 7–10 cm (root mean square) at both sites, which means that the number of measurements is sufficient to average out the spatial variability and yield precise mean snow depth. With such high precision, it was possible for the first time at Dome C to (1) observe a 3-month period of regular and slow increase of snow depth without apparent link to snowfalls and (2) highlight that most of the annual accumulation stems from a single event although several snowfall and strong wind events were predicted by the ERA-Interim reanalysis. Finally the paper discusses the benefit of laser scanning compared to multiplying single-point sensors in the context of monitoring snow depth.

Short summary
A cost-effective automatic laser scan has been built to measure snow depth spatio-temporal variations. Deployed in the Alps and in Dome C (Antarctica), two devices acquired daily scans covering a surface area of 100–150 m2. The precision and long-term stability of the measurements are about 1 cm and the accuracy is better than 5 cm. These high performances are particularly suited at Dome C, where it was possible to reveal that most of the accumulation in the year 2015 stems from a single event.