Deriving planform morphology and vegetation coverage from remote sensing to support river management applications

Richard J. Boothroyd, Michael Nones, Massimo Guerrero

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With the increasing availability of big geospatial data (e.g., multi-spectral satellite imagery) and access to platforms that support multi-temporal analyses (e.g., cloud-based computing, Geographical Information Systems, GIS), the use of remotely sensed information for monitoring riverine hydro-morpho-biodynamics is growing. Opportunities to map, quantify and detect changes in the wider riverscape (i.e., water, sediment and vegetation) at an unprecedented spatiotemporal resolution can support flood risk and river management applications. Focusing on a reach of the Po River (Italy), satellite imagery from Landsat 5, 7, and 8 for the period 1988–2018 were analyzed in Google Earth Engine (GEE) to investigate changes in river planform morphology and vegetation dynamics associated with transient hydrology. An improved understanding of these correlations can help in managing sediment transport and riparian vegetation to reduce flood risk, where biogeomorphic processes are commonly overlooked in flood risk mapping. In the study, two established indices were analyzed: the Modified Normalized Difference Water Index (MNDWI) for monitoring changes in the wetted river planform morphology, inferring information about sediment dynamics, and the Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI) for evaluating changes in vegetation coverage. Results suggest that planform changes are highly localized with most parts of the reach remaining stable. Using the wetted channel occurrence as a measure of planform stability, almost two-thirds of the wetted channel extent (total area = 86.4 km2) had an occurrence frequency >90% (indicating stability). A loss of planform complexity coincided with the position of former secondary channels, or zones where the active river channel had narrowed. Time series analysis of vegetation dynamics showed that NDVI maxima were recorded in May/June and coincided with the first peak in the hydrological regime (occurring in late spring and associated with snowmelt). Seasonal variation in vegetation coverage is potentially important for local hydrodynamics, influencing flood risk. We suggest that remotely sensed information can provide river scientists with new insights to support the management of highly anthropized watercourses.
Original languageEnglish
Article number657354
Number of pages18
JournalFrontiers in Environmental Science
Publication statusPublished - 4 May 2021


  • Po river
  • google earth engine
  • multi-spectral
  • multi-temporal
  • remote sensing
  • river science


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