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Front. Earth Sci. | doi: 10.3389/feart.2019.00141

Limitations posed by Free DEMs in watershed studies: the case of river Tanaro in Italy

  • 1GECOsistema Srl, Italy

Topography is a critical element in the hydrological response of a drainage basin and its availability in the form of Digital Elevation Models (DEM) has advanced the modelling of hydrological and hydraulic processes. However, progress experienced in these fields may stall, as intrinsic characteristics of free DEMs may limit new findings, while at the same time new releases of free, high-accuracy, global digital terrain models are still uncertain. In this paper, the limiting nature of free DEMs is dissected in the context of hydrogeomorphology. Nine sets of terrain data are analysed: the SRTM GL1 and GL3, HydroSHEDS, TINITALY, ASTER GDEM, EU DEM, VFP, ALOS AW3D30, MERIT and the TDX. In specific, the influence of three parameters are investigated, i.e., spatial resolution, hydrological reconditioning and vertical accuracy, on four relevant geomorphic terrain descriptors, namely the upslope contributing area, the local slope, the elevation difference and the flow path distance to the nearest stream, H and D, respectively. The Tanaro river basin in Italy is chosen as the study region and the newly released LiDAR for the Italian territory is used as benchmark to reassess vertical accuracies. In addition, the EU-Hydro photo-interpreted river network is used to compare DEM-based river networks. Most DEMs approximate well the frequency curve of elevations of the LiDAR, but this is not necessarily reflected in the representation of geomorphic features. For example, DEMs with finer spatial resolution present larger contributing areas; differences in the slope can reach 10%; between 5 m and 12 m H, none of the considered DEMs can faithfully represent the LiDAR; D presents significant variability between DEMs; and river network extraction can be problematic in flatter terrain. It is also found that the lowest mean absolute error (MAE) is given by the MERIT, 2.85 m, while the lowest root mean square error (RMSE) is given by the SRTM GL3, 4.83 m. Practical implications of choosing a DEM over another may be expected, as the limitations of any particular DEM in faithfully reproducing critical geomorphic terrain features may hinder our ability to find satisfactory answers to some pressing problems.

Keywords: Hydrogeomorphology, landforms, terrain descriptors, topography, digital elevation models

Received: 31 Aug 2018; Accepted: 16 May 2019.

Edited by:

Guy J. Schumann, University of Bristol, United Kingdom

Reviewed by:

Ahmed M. ElKenawy, Mansoura University, Egypt
Zaidoon Abdulrazzaq, Independent researcher, Iraq  

Copyright: © 2019 Tavares Da Costa, Mazzoli and Bagli. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY). The use, distribution or reproduction in other forums is permitted, provided the original author(s) and the copyright owner(s) are credited and that the original publication in this journal is cited, in accordance with accepted academic practice. No use, distribution or reproduction is permitted which does not comply with these terms.

* Correspondence: Mr. Ricardo Tavares Da Costa, GECOsistema Srl, Cesena, Italy,