Mapping surface hoar from near-infrared texture in a laboratory

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Copernicus GmbH


Surface hoar crystals are snow grains that form when water vapor deposits on the snow surface. Once buried, surface hoar creates a weak layer in the snowpack that can later cause large avalanches to occur. The formation and persistence of surface hoar are highly spatiotemporally variable, making its detection difficult. Remote-sensing technology capable of detecting the presence and spatial distribution of surface hoar would be beneficial for avalanche forecasting, but this capability has yet to be developed. Here, we hypothesize that near-infrared (NIR) texture, defined as the spatial variability of reflectance magnitude, may produce an optical signature unique to surface hoar due to the distinct shape and orientation of the grains. We tested this hypothesis by performing reflectance experiments in a controlled cold laboratory environment to evaluate the potential and accuracy of surface hoar mapping from NIR texture using a near-infrared hyperspectral imager (NIR-HSI) and a lidar operating at 1064 nm. We analyzed 41 snow samples, three of which were surface hoar and 38 of which consisted of other grain morphologies. When using NIR-HSI under direct and diffuse illumination, we found that surface hoar displayed higher NIR texture relative to all other grain shapes across numerous spectral bands and a wide range of spatial resolutions (0.5–50 mm). Due to the large number of spectral- and spatial-resolution combinations, we conducted a detailed samplewise case study at 1324 nm spectral and 10 mm spatial resolution. The case study resulted in the median texture of surface hoar being 1.3 to 8.6 times greater than that of the 38 other samples under direct and diffuse illumination (p < 0.05 in all cases). Using lidar, surface hoar also exhibited significantly increased NIR texture in 30 out of 38 samples, but only at select (5–25 mm) spatial resolutions. Leveraging these results, we propose a simple binary classification algorithm to map the extent of surface hoar on a pixelwise basis using both the NIR-HSI and lidar instruments. The NIR-HSI under direct and diffuse illumination performed best, with a median accuracy of 96.91 % and 97.37 %, respectively. Conversely, the median classification accuracy achieved with lidar was only 66.99 %. Further, to assess the repeatability of our method and demonstrate its mapping capacity, we ran the algorithm on a new sample with mixed microstructures, with an accuracy of 99.61 % and 96.15 % achieved using NIR-HSI under direct and diffuse illumination, respectively. As NIR-HSI detectors become increasingly available, our findings demonstrate the potential of a new tool for avalanche forecasters to remotely assess the spatiotemporal variability of surface hoar, which would improve avalanche forecasts and potentially save lives.



surface hoar, hoar crystals, snowpack, avalanche, near-infrared (NIR), near-infrared hyperspectral imager (NIR-HSI)


Dillon, J., Donahue, C., Schehrer, E., Birkeland, K., & Hammonds, K. (2024). Mapping surface hoar from near-infrared texture in a laboratory. The Cryosphere, 18(5), 2557-2582.
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