Exploration of remotely sensed forest structure and ultrasonic range sensor metrics to improve empirical snow models

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Current methods to estimate snow accumulation and ablation at the plot and watershed levels can be improved as new technologies offer alternative approaches to more accurately monitor snow dynamics and their drivers. Here we conduct a meta-analysis of snow and vegetation data collected in British Columbia to explore the relationships between a wide range of forest structure variables – obtained from Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR), hemispherical photography (HP) and Landsat Thematic Mapper – and several indicators of snow accumulation and ablation estimated from manual snow surveys and ultrasonic range sensors. By merging and standardizing all the ground plot information available in the study area, we demonstrate how LiDAR-derived forest cover above 0.5 m was the variable explaining the highest percentage of absolute peak snow water equivalent (SWE) (33%), while HP-derived leaf area index and gap fraction (45° angle of view) were the best potential predictors of snow ablation rate (explaining 57% of variance). This study reveals how continuous SWE data from ultrasonic sensors are fundamental to obtain statistically significant relationships between snow indicators and structural metrics by increasing mean r2 by 20% when compared to manual surveys. The relationships between vegetation and spectral indices from Landsat and snow indicators, not explored before, were almost as high as those shown by LiDAR or HP and thus point towards a new line of research with important practical implications. While the use of different data sources from two snow seasons prevented us from developing models with predictive capacity, a large sample size helped to identify outliers that weakened the relationships and suggest improvements for future research. A concise overview of the limitations of this and previous studies is provided along with propositions to consistently improve experimental designs to take advantage of remote sensing technologies, and better represent spatial and temporal variations of snow. Copyright © 2013 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.

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