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Boreal canopy surfaces from spaceborne stereogrammetry

Montesano, Paul M., Neigh, Christopher S.R., Wagner, William, Wooten, Margaret, Cook, Bruce D.
Remote sensing of environment 2019 v.225 pp. 148-159
boreal forests, canopy gaps, forest canopy, lidar, models, remote sensing, snow, Alaska
Surface elevation estimates from high resolution spaceborne image (HRSI) stereogrammetry are used to examine fine-scaled structure of boreal forest canopies. These data can depict detailed spatial patterns of vertical forest structure at remote sites across the circumpolar domain where these estimates would otherwise be unavailable. This work examines where these estimates are most effective at describing vertical forest structure to explain which canopy surfaces they represent. We evaluated the variation in canopy surface estimates captured from four general types of HRSI digital surface models (DSMs) across the full range of boreal canopy cover. These DSMs, classified into 4 types by grouping them according to the acquisition's (1) sun elevation angle (low or high) and (2) seasonality-driven ground surface condition (snow presence/absence), vary with acquisition characteristics and the details of this variation continues to be studied. We explored some of this variation by comparing the distributions of differences in boreal canopy percentile heights derived from reference small footprint lidar in Tanana Valley, Alaska with canopy surface elevations derived from these 4 types of HRSI DSMs. We examined how canopy surface estimates from HRSI DSMs differ according to acquisition characteristics and canopy cover, and ultimately which canopy surfaces are represented in these DSMs. Our results help clarify which boreal canopy surfaces are representative of those captured with HRSI DSMs. They show that in the Tanana Valley (1) DSMs grouped by sun elevation angle and ground surface condition provide different surface estimates of boreal canopies; (2) the two DSM types that appear to most differently capture boreal forest canopy surfaces are DSMs from snow-free images acquired at sun elevation angles <30° (Low sun elev. & snow-free) and those with snow-cover at sun elevation angles ≥30° (High sun elev. & snow-free); (3) DSMs with snow most often do not capture upper canopy surfaces; (4) the “Low sun elev. & snow-free” DSMs resolve surfaces that are most representative of upper canopy surfaces (dense forests >60% cover, 70th–80th percentile heights); and (5) in the most dense forests (>80% cover) where canopy gaps are least likely to bias downward the average surface estimates, the snow-free DSM types are representative of 70th - 80th percentile heights (“Low sun elev. & snow-free”) and 60th–70th percentile heights (“High sun elev. & snow-free”). The combination of horizontal structure (canopy cover) and acquisition characteristics affect the boreal vertical structure (canopy surface height) estimates from spaceborne stereogrammetry. These effects should be considered when analyzing products derived from HRSI DSMs, and as part of a comprehensive approach to spaceborne remote sensing of circumpolar boreal forests.