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Hydrology and Earth System Sciences An interactive open-access journal of the European Geosciences Union
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Volume 19, issue 6 | Copyright
Hydrol. Earth Syst. Sci., 19, 2881-2897, 2015
© Author(s) 2015. This work is distributed under
the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License.

Review article 22 Jun 2015

Review article | 22 Jun 2015

Laser vision: lidar as a transformative tool to advance critical zone science

A. A. Harpold1, J. A. Marshall2, S. W. Lyon3, T. B. Barnhart4, B. A. Fisher5, M. Donovan6, K. M. Brubaker7, C. J. Crosby8, N. F. Glenn9, C. L. Glennie10, P. B. Kirchner11, N. Lam3, K. D. Mankoff12, J. L. McCreight13, N. P. Molotch4, K. N. Musselman14, J. Pelletier15, T. Russo16, H. Sangireddy17, Y. Sjöberg3, T. Swetnam15, and N. West16 A. A. Harpold et al.
  • 1University of Nevada, Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Science, Reno, Nevada, USA
  • 2University of Oregon, Department of Geological Sciences, Eugene, Oregon, USA
  • 3Stockholm University, Department of Physical Geography, Stockholm, Sweden
  • 4University of Colorado, Geography Department and Institute for Arctic and Alpine Research, Boulder, Colorado, USA
  • 5University of Minnesota, Land and Atmospheric Science, Minnesota, St. Paul, Minnesota,USA
  • 6University of Maryland, Geography and Environmental Systems Department, Baltimore County, Baltimore, Maryland, USA
  • 7Hobart and William Smith Colleges, Environmental Studies, Geneva, New York, USA
  • 8UNAVCO, Boulder, Colorado, USA
  • 9Boise State University, Department of Geosciences, Boise, Idaho, USA
  • 10University of Houston, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Houston, Texas, USA
  • 11University of California, Joint Institute for Regional Earth System Science and Engineering, Los Angeles, California, USA
  • 12Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, Department of Physical Oceanography, Woods Hole, Massachusetts, USA
  • 13National Center for Atmospheric Research, Boulder, Colorado, USA
  • 14University of Saskatchewan, Centre for Hydrology, Saskatchewan, Canada
  • 15University of Arizona, Department of Geosciences, Tucson, Arizona, USA
  • 16Pennsylvania State University, State College, Department of Geosciences, Pennsylvania, USA
  • 17University of Texas, Department of Civil Engineering, Austin, Texas, USA

Abstract. Observation and quantification of the Earth's surface is undergoing a revolutionary change due to the increased spatial resolution and extent afforded by light detection and ranging (lidar) technology. As a consequence, lidar-derived information has led to fundamental discoveries within the individual disciplines of geomorphology, hydrology, and ecology. These disciplines form the cornerstones of critical zone (CZ) science, where researchers study how interactions among the geosphere, hydrosphere, and biosphere shape and maintain the "zone of life", which extends from the top of unweathered bedrock to the top of the vegetation canopy. Fundamental to CZ science is the development of transdisciplinary theories and tools that transcend disciplines and inform other's work, capture new levels of complexity, and create new intellectual outcomes and spaces. Researchers are just beginning to use lidar data sets to answer synergistic, transdisciplinary questions in CZ science, such as how CZ processes co-evolve over long timescales and interact over shorter timescales to create thresholds, shifts in states and fluxes of water, energy, and carbon. The objective of this review is to elucidate the transformative potential of lidar for CZ science to simultaneously allow for quantification of topographic, vegetative, and hydrological processes. A review of 147 peer-reviewed lidar studies highlights a lack of lidar applications for CZ studies as 38 % of the studies were focused in geomorphology, 18 % in hydrology, 32 % in ecology, and the remaining 12 % had an interdisciplinary focus. A handful of exemplar transdisciplinary studies demonstrate lidar data sets that are well-integrated with other observations can lead to fundamental advances in CZ science, such as identification of feedbacks between hydrological and ecological processes over hillslope scales and the synergistic co-evolution of landscape-scale CZ structure due to interactions amongst carbon, energy, and water cycles. We propose that using lidar to its full potential will require numerous advances, including new and more powerful open-source processing tools, exploiting new lidar acquisition technologies, and improved integration with physically based models and complementary in situ and remote-sensing observations. We provide a 5-year vision that advocates for the expanded use of lidar data sets and highlights subsequent potential to advance the state of CZ science.

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Short summary
This review's objective is to demonstrate the transformative potential of lidar by critically assessing both challenges and opportunities for transdisciplinary lidar applications in geomorphology, hydrology, and ecology. We find that using lidar to its full potential will require numerous advances, including more powerful open-source processing tools, new lidar acquisition technologies, and improved integration with physically based models and complementary observations.
This review's objective is to demonstrate the transformative potential of lidar by critically...