Measuring snow depth with ICESat-2 space laser data

To date, snow depth can only be measured by field campaigns, either by direct manual/automated measurements or local-scale remote sensing methods that also require costly or difficult field campaigns. The new space laser satellite ICESat-2 makes it, for the first time ever, possible to directly measure snow depth profiles from space.

ICESat-2 was launched in autumn 2018. When it flies over snow-covered terrain, it will record the surface elevation of the snow - thus, if we know the ground elevation of the underlying terrain, we can find the snow depth by differentiating the two. Since this data has been released in spring 2019 only, the question is: how well does that work, and how accurate are ICESat-2's snow depth measurements?

The aim of this master thesis is to compare: 

  1. snow depths derived from ICESat-2 surface elevation measurements and, 
  2. simultaneously acquired field measurements of snow depth along with the same profiles.

The project has thus two very different work tasks, a remote sensing/programming (scripting) part (1) plus extensive fieldwork (2) during wintertime in the Norwegian mountains. Field data collection requires that you are comfortable on skis in mountainous terrain and in cold weather.

The field site is the Finse area where the thesis project can use existing infrastructure and knowledge from numerous other snow-related projects. Fieldwork should ideally take place around March/April 2020.

Snow depths are a crucial factor for the hydrology, ecology, energy balance and the climate of the Earth, so this new method will likely be relevant for numerous application fields.


Remote sensing, hydrology or physical geography, good knowledge of remote sensing/GIS methods, scripting/programming skills, physical ability and motivation for winter fieldwork.

Further reading

Snow research in Finse:

About ICESat-2:

First results from the American Geoscience annual meeting (AGU 2018) show the potential of the data over various terrain types:

Published Sep. 24, 2019 11:44 AM - Last modified Sep. 24, 2019 12:39 PM

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