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Remote sensing of riverine landscapes


Leal A. K. Mertes Department of Geography and Institute for Computational Earth System Science, University of California, Santa Barbara, CA 93106-4060, U.S.A. E-mail:


1. The fashion for examining riverine landscapes is changing as our technical instruments, from microprobes to satellites, expands to be able to examine the spatial and temporal relationships among biota, hydrology and geomorphology across scales from microhabitats to channel units to valleys to catchments.

2. The range of successful applications from remote sensing analyses of riverine landscapes has especially increased with the launch of many new instruments that record data across the electromagnetic spectrum. Engineering of the instruments has also improved such that knowledge of the radiometric properties of the digital data is more complete as a result of better instrumentation and installation of on-board calibrations systems for many instruments.

3. With the development of faster processing on cheaper computers, it is now common for comprehensive data sets to be processed through algorithms that previously could only be applied to relatively small (<1 Mbyte) rasters of data. This technical advance is especially important for the statistical algorithms such as principal components and spectral mixture analysis that can decompose gradients in the spectral data. The combined effect is the production of regional views of riverine landscapes separated into components of water, vegetation and soil.

4. The landscape properties of riverine landscapes that have been most successfully measured with remote sensing data include community and habitat level classification and connectivity of waterbodies with optical and radar data. Laser and radar altimetric data measured from aircraft provide land elevations at resolutions as fine as decimetres. A remaining challenge is to achieve an exact match between the categories of landscape classification from the remote sensing analysis and data from field surveys or model outputs.

5. In contrast to many landscape properties, several water properties are now routinely measured as absolute values (water surface elevation, temperature, surface sediment concentration and algal concentration) with remote sensing. New analyses of both passive and active radar data in addition have led to measurements of inundation and wetness that are providing valuable insight into the dynamics of flooding and its effect on riverine landscapes.

6. Finally, an effective examination of the variability in landscape cover includes additional analyses of remote sensing products using pattern metrics that measure the scale of patchiness and distribution of the landscape properties. These types of variability measures at the regional scale contribute to an increased understanding of the way in which spatial heterogeneity of riverine landscapes varies across scales and how landscape filters (sensu Poff, 1997) influence the evolution of these diversity patterns.