Automatic geomorphic feature extraction from lidar in flat and engineered landscapes

Paola Passalacqua, Patrick Belmont, Efi Foufoula-Georgiou

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

67 Scopus citations


High-resolution topographic data derived from light detection and ranging (lidar) technology enables detailed geomorphic observations to be made on spatially extensive areas in a way that was previously not possible. Availability of this data provides new opportunities to study the spatial organization of landscapes and channel network features, increase the accuracy of environmental transport models, and inform decisions for targeting conservation practices. However, with the opportunity of increased resolution topographic data come formidable challenges in terms of automatic geomorphic feature extraction, analysis, and interpretation. Low-relief landscapes are particularly challenging because topographic gradients are low, and in many places both the landscape and the channel network have been heavily modified by humans. This is especially true for agricultural landscapes, which dominate the midwestern United States. The goal of this work is to address several issues related to feature extraction in flat lands by using GeoNet, a recently developed method based on nonlinear multiscale filtering and geodesic optimization for automatic extraction of geomorphic features (channel heads and channel networks) from high-resolution topographic data. Here we test the ability of GeoNet to extract channel networks in flat and human-impacted landscapes using 3 m lidar data for the Le Sueur River Basin, a 2880 km 2 subbasin of the Minnesota River Basin. We propose a curvature analysis to differentiate between channels and manmade structures that are not part of the river network, such as roads and bridges. We document that Laplacian curvature more effectively distinguishes channels in flat, human-impacted landscapes compared with geometric curvature. In addition, we develop a method for performing automated channel morphometric analysis including extraction of cross sections, detection of bank locations, and identification of geomorphic bankfull water surface elevation. Using the slope plotted along each channel-floodplain cross section, we demonstrate the ability to identify and measure the height of river banks and bluffs. Finally, we present an example that demonstrates how extracting such features automatically is important for modeling channel evolution, water and sediment transport, and channel-floodplain sediment exchange.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numberW03528
JournalWater Resources Research
Issue number3
StatePublished - 2012

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