A low-cost and open-source approach for supraglacial debris thickness mapping using UAV-based infrared thermography

Messmer J, Groos AR (2024)

Publication Language: English

Publication Type: Journal article, Original article

Publication year: 2024


Book Volume: 18

Pages Range: 719–746

URI: https://tc.copernicus.org/articles/18/719/2024/

DOI: 10.5194/tc-18-719-2024

Open Access Link: https://doi.org/10.5194/tc-18-719-2024


Debris-covered glaciers exist in many mountain ranges and play an important role in the regional water cycle. However, modelling the surface mass balance, runoff contribution and future evolution of debris-covered glaciers is fraught with uncertainty as accurate observations on small-scale variations in debris thickness and sub-debris ice melt rates are only available for a few locations worldwide. Here we describe a customised low-cost unoccupied aerial vehicle (UAV) for high-resolution thermal imaging of mountain glaciers and present a complete open-source pipeline that facilitates the generation of accurate surface temperature and debris thickness maps from radiometric images. First, a radiometric orthophoto is computed from individual radiometric UAV images using structure-from-motion and multi-view-stereo techniques. User-specific calibration and correction procedures can then be applied to the radiometric orthophoto to account for atmospheric and environmental influences that affect the radiometric measurement. The thermal orthophoto reveals distinct spatial variations in surface temperature across the surveyed debris-covered area. Finally, a high-resolution debris thickness map is derived from the corrected thermal orthophoto using an empirical or inverse surface energy balance model that relates surface temperature to debris thickness and is calibrated against in situ measurements. Our results from a small-scale experiment on the Kanderfirn (also known as Kander Neve) in the Swiss Alps show that the surface temperature and thickness of a relatively thin debris layer (ca. 0–15 cm) can be mapped with high accuracy using an empirical or physical model. On snow and ice surfaces, the mean deviation of the mapped surface temperature from the melting point (∼ 0 C) was 0.6 ± 2.0 C. The root-mean-square error of the modelled debris thickness was 1.3 cm. Through the detailed mapping, typical small-scale debris features and debris thickness patterns become visible, which are not spatially resolved by the thermal infrared sensors of current-generation satellites. The presented approach paves the way for comprehensive high-resolution supraglacial debris thickness mapping and opens up new opportunities for more accurate monitoring and modelling of debris-covered glaciers.

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Messmer, J., & Groos, A.R. (2024). A low-cost and open-source approach for supraglacial debris thickness mapping using UAV-based infrared thermography. Cryosphere, 18, 719–746. https://dx.doi.org/10.5194/tc-18-719-2024


Messmer, Jérôme, and Alexander Raphael Groos. "A low-cost and open-source approach for supraglacial debris thickness mapping using UAV-based infrared thermography." Cryosphere 18 (2024): 719–746.

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