Articles | Volume 9, issue 4
Research article
 | Highlight paper
05 Aug 2015
Research article | Highlight paper |  | 05 Aug 2015

Mapping snow depth from manned aircraft on landscape scales at centimeter resolution using structure-from-motion photogrammetry

M. Nolan, C. Larsen, and M. Sturm

Abstract. 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 advancements to the measurement of snow depth from manned aircraft. Our main airborne hardware consists of a consumer-grade digital camera directly coupled to a dual-frequency GPS; no inertial motion unit (IMU) or on-board computer is required, such that system hardware and software costs less than USD 30 000, exclusive of aircraft. The photogrammetric processing is done using a commercially available implementation of the structure from motion (SfM) algorithm. The system is simple enough that it can be operated by the pilot without additional assistance and the technique creates directly georeferenced maps without ground control, further reducing overall 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 (real-world 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 a similar photogrammetric system. We empirically determined that our DEMs have a geolocation accuracy of ±30 cm and a repeatability of ±8 cm (both 95 % confidence). We then validated our dDEMs against more than 6000 hand-probed snow depth measurements at 3 separate 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 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 limited 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.

Short summary
This paper presents a photogrammetric method for measuring topography from manned aircraft with an accuracy of 30 cm and repeatability of 8 cm, at significantly lower cost than other methods. Here we created difference maps to demonstrate that we could measure snow depth with an accuracy of 10 cm compared to over 6000 snow-probe measurements on the ground, but do so over entire watersheds at 10-20 cm spatial resolution rather than just a few transects.