Articles | Volume 15, issue 2
25 Feb 2011
 | 25 Feb 2011

Efficient extraction of drainage networks from massive, radar-based elevation models with least cost path search

M. Metz, H. Mitasova, and R. S. Harmon

Abstract. The availability of both global and regional elevation datasets acquired by modern remote sensing technologies provides an opportunity to significantly improve the accuracy of stream mapping, especially in remote, hard to reach regions. Stream extraction from digital elevation models (DEMs) is based on computation of flow accumulation, a summary parameter that poses performance and accuracy challenges when applied to large, noisy DEMs generated by remote sensing technologies. Robust handling of DEM depressions is essential for reliable extraction of connected drainage networks from this type of data. The least-cost flow routing method implemented in GRASS GIS as the module r.watershed was redesigned to significantly improve its speed, functionality, and memory requirements and make it an efficient tool for stream mapping and watershed analysis from large DEMs. To evaluate its handling of large depressions, typical for remote sensing derived DEMs, three different methods were compared: traditional sink filling, impact reduction approach, and least-cost path search. The comparison was performed using the Shuttle Radar Topographic Mission (SRTM) and Interferometric Synthetic Aperture Radar for Elevation (IFSARE) datasets covering central Panama at 90 m and 10 m resolutions, respectively. The accuracy assessment was based on ground control points acquired by GPS and reference points digitized from Landsat imagery along segments of selected Panamanian rivers. The results demonstrate that the new implementation of the least-cost path method is significantly faster than the original version, can cope with massive datasets, and provides the most accurate results in terms of stream locations validated against reference points.