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Lidar measurement of snow depth: a review

  • Jeffrey S. Deems (a1), Thomas H. Painter (a2) and David C. Finnegan (a3)


Laser altimetry (lidar) is a remote-sensing technology that holds tremendous promise for mapping snow depth in snow hydrology and avalanche applications. Recently lidar has seen a dramatic widening of applications in the natural sciences, resulting in technological improvements and an increase in the availability of both airborne and ground-based sensors. Modern sensors allow mapping of vegetation heights and snow or ground surface elevations below forest canopies. Typical vertical accuracies for airborne datasets are decimeter-scale with order 1 m point spacings. Ground-based systems typically provide millimeter-scale range accuracy and sub-meter point spacing over 1 m to several kilometers. Many system parameters, such as scan angle, pulse rate and shot geometry relative to terrain gradients, require specification to achieve specific point coverage densities in forested and/or complex terrain. Additionally, snow has a significant volumetric scattering component, requiring different considerations for error estimation than for other Earth surface materials. We use published estimates of light penetration depth by wavelength to estimate radiative transfer error contributions. This paper presents a review of lidar mapping procedures and error sources, potential errors unique to snow surface remote sensing in the near-infrared and visible wavelengths, and recommendations for projects using lidar for snow-depth mapping.

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