Sea ice dynamic and thermodynamic processes are important and highly variable elements of the marginal ice zone (MIZ). This study examines the detection and classification of statistically separable sea ice classes in the MIZ through a range of temporal and spatial scales. A helicopter-based laser system was used to obtain large-scale and a ship-based laser profiler to identify small-scale roughness types, respectively. The analysis of variance of surface height data from helicopter- and ship-based laser systems, active microwave (AMW) C-band backscattering data and passive microwave (PMW) (37 and 89 GHz) brightness temperature data reveal different classes that statistically differ from one another. We found significant statistical difference in variances in AMW data with six classes that differ in VV polarization, three classes in VH polarization, and five classes in HH polarization in the MIZ (e.g. snow-covered first-year ice, ice rubble, pancake ice, frost flowers, melt pond, flooded ice, and ice edge) of southeastern Beaufort Sea. The PMW emission was not as effective at discrimination, yielding only one statistically separable class. The results can potentially be extended to satellite-based investigations of the MIZ at regional scales. Copyright © 2012 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.