Articles | Volume 14, issue 6
04 Jun 2010
 | 04 Jun 2010

Assessing the application of a laser rangefinder for determining snow depth in inaccessible alpine terrain

J. L. Hood and M. Hayashi

Abstract. Snow is a major contributor to stream flow in alpine watersheds and quantifying snow depth and distribution is important for hydrological research. However, direct measurement of snow in rugged alpine terrain is often impossible due to avalanche and rock fall hazard. A laser rangefinder was used to determine the depth of snow in inaccessible areas. Laser rangefinders use ground based light detection and ranging technology but are more cost effective than airborne surveys or terrestrial laser scanning systems and are highly portable. Data were collected within the Opabin watershed in the Canadian Rockies. Surveys were conducted on one accessible slope for validation purposes and two inaccessible talus slopes. Laser distance data was used to generate surface models of slopes when snow covered and snow-free and snow depth distribution was quantified by differencing the two surfaces. The results were compared with manually probed snow depths on the accessible slope. The accuracy of the laser rangefinder method as compared to probed depths was 0.21 m or 12% of average snow depth. Results from the two inaccessible talus slopes showed regions near the top of the slopes with 6–9 m of snow accumulation. These deep snow accumulation zones result from re-distribution of snow by avalanches and are hydrologically significant as they persist until late summer.