Monitoring Rock Glacier Dynamics with Improved Measurement Frequency

Editor’s Note: The article below has been kindly provided to us by Heidelberg University in Heidelberg, Germany. The 3D Geospatial Data Processing Group from the university is conducting studies of rock glacier dynamics in a high-Alpine permafrost environment utilizing a RIEGL VZ-2000i terrestrial laser scanner, as well as a UAV equipped with the RIEGL miniVUX-1UAV unmanned laser scanner. Read more about Heidelberg University’s fascinating research below and how their monitoring is providing new insights into rock glaciers and their change processes.

Short-interval (e.g. < monthly) topographic LiDAR monitoring has begun to provide new insights into a range of geomorphic processes. Such 4D data help us to better understand the dynamics of rock glaciers. Rock glaciers are creep phenomena of mountain permafrost. In the era of climate change, rock glaciers are important water reservoirs and potential unstable slopes. Their surface exhibits a range of change processes which feature different spatial characteristics, magnitudes and timescales of occurrence, that are not yet fully understood.

Research in this field is being conducted by the 3D Geospatial Data Processing (3DGeo) Research Group of Heidelberg University in a high-Alpine permafrost environment.

With a RIEGL VZ-2000i terrestrial laser scanner, the Äußeres Hochebenkar rock glacier (Ötztal Alps, Austria) is being monitored during the summer period, when the ground is free of snow cover.

VZSurveying the rock glacier’s headwall and source zone with a RIEGL VZ-2000i at 3021 m a. s. l. (photo: Jack Williams, 20.07.2019).

While conventionally monitored at annual timescales, recent fortnightly monitoring of the rock glacier is being undertaken to quantify the contribution of individual processes to the annual surface change budget. This enables to constrain the various mechanisms of sediment production, transport, and removal from the system.

To obtain a complete picture of these dynamics, the 3DGeo research group will also combine terrestrial LiDAR measurements with data from its recently acquired UAV-borne laser scanning system, equipped with a RIEGL miniVUX-1 UAV unmanned laser scanner.

Based on these 3D time-series datasets, automated methods will be developed that are able to quantify the contribution of individual processes to the total movement of sediment through the point cloud scene.

Such methods can enhance our general understanding of the dynamics of rock glaciers and similar geomorphic objects and their interaction with connected environmental systems.

Photo and 3D point cloud of the entire rock glacier (photo: Vivien Zahs, 20.07.2019; point cloud: Jack Williams).

3d photo cloud

Photo and 3D point cloud of the entire rock glacier (photo: Vivien Zahs, 20.07.2019; point cloud: Jack Williams).


remote sensing and topo lidarRecently, the Remote Sensing & Topographic LiDAR Research Group of the University of Innsbruck joined one of the field visits to repeat their LiDAR UAV flight campaign from 2018 with their RIEGL RICOPTER (VUX-1LR, AP20) system, flying in altitudes between 2400 and 2740m m a.s.l.. Both research groups are actively collaborating in the field of rock glacier research (photo: Vivien Zahs, 30.08.2019).


Click on the links below to find more details about related research projects and publications:

AHK-4D – High-resolution and high-frequency monitoring of the rock glacier Äußeres Hochebenkar (AHK) in Austria
Geomorph4D – Characterising multi-process geomorphic change through high spatial- and high temporal-resolution monitoring

4D-LAMB – 4D Lidar mountAin Monitoring laB

Zahs, V., Hämmerle, M., Anders, K., Hecht, S., Rutzinger, M., Sailer, R., Williams, J.G., Höfle, B.

(2019): Multi-temporal 3D point cloud-based quantification and analysis of geomorphological activity at an alpine rock glacier using airborne and terrestrial LiDAR. Permafrost and Periglacial Processes. Vol. 30 (3), pp. 222-238.


About RIEGL:

RIEGL is an international leading provider of cutting edge technology in airborne, mobile, terrestrial, industrial and unmanned laser scanning solutions.

RIEGL has been producing LiDAR systems commercially for over 40 years and focuses on pulsed time-of-flight laser radar technology in multiple wavelengths.

RIEGL’s core Smart-Waveform technologies provide pure digital LiDAR signal processing, unique methodologies for resolving range ambiguities, multiple targets per laser shots, optimum distribution of measurements, calibrated amplitudes and reflectance estimates, as well as the seamless integration and calibration of systems.

RIEGL’s various 3D scanners offer a wide array of performance characteristics and serve as a platform for continuing “Innovation in 3D” for the LiDAR industry.

From the first inquiry, to purchase and integration of the system, as well as training and support, RIEGL maintains an out-standing history of reliability and support to their customers.

Worldwide sales, training, support and services are delivered from RIEGL’s headquarters in Austria, main offices in the USA, Japan, Australia and China, and by a worldwide network of representatives covering Europe, North and South America, Asia, Australia, and Africa.

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