Articles | Volume 5, issue 4
Earth Surf. Dynam., 5, 791–806, 2017

Special issue: 4-D reconstruction of earth surface processes: multi-temporal...

Earth Surf. Dynam., 5, 791–806, 2017

Research article 05 Dec 2017

Research article | 05 Dec 2017

Unravelling earth flow dynamics with 3-D time series derived from UAV-SfM models

François Clapuyt1, Veerle Vanacker1, Fritz Schlunegger2, and Kristof Van Oost1 François Clapuyt et al.
  • 1Earth and Life Institute, Georges Lemaître Centre for Earth and Climate Research, Université Catholique de Louvain, Louvain-la-Neuve, Belgium
  • 2Institut für Geologie, Universität Bern, Bern, Switzerland

Abstract. Accurately assessing geo-hazards and quantifying landslide risks in mountainous environments are gaining importance in the context of the ongoing global warming. For an in-depth understanding of slope failure mechanisms, accurate monitoring of the mass movement topography at high spatial and temporal resolutions remains essential. The choice of the acquisition framework for high-resolution topographic reconstructions will mainly result from the trade-off between the spatial resolution needed and the extent of the study area. Recent advances in the development of unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV)-based image acquisition combined with the structure-from-motion (SfM) algorithm for three-dimensional (3-D) reconstruction make the UAV-SfM framework a competitive alternative to other high-resolution topographic techniques.

In this study, we aim at gaining in-depth knowledge of the Schimbrig earthflow located in the foothills of the Central Swiss Alps by monitoring ground surface displacements at very high spatial and temporal resolution using the efficiency of the UAV-SfM framework. We produced distinct topographic datasets for three acquisition dates between 2013 and 2015 in order to conduct a comprehensive 3-D analysis of the landslide. Therefore, we computed (1) the sediment budget of the hillslope, and (2) the horizontal and (3) the three-dimensional surface displacements. The multitemporal UAV-SfM based topographic reconstructions allowed us to quantify rates of sediment redistribution and surface movements. Our data show that the Schimbrig earthflow is very active, with mean annual horizontal displacement ranging between 6 and 9 m. Combination and careful interpretation of high-resolution topographic analyses reveal the internal mechanisms of the earthflow and its complex rotational structure. In addition to variation in horizontal surface movements through time, we interestingly showed that the configuration of nested rotational units changes through time. Although there are major changes in the internal structure of the earthflow in the 2013–2015 period, the sediment budget of the drainage basin is nearly in equilibrium. As a consequence, our data show that the time lag between sediment mobilization by landslides and enhanced sediment fluxes in the river network can be considerable.

Short summary
This work aims at understanding the behaviour of an earth flow located in the Swiss Alps by reconstructing very accurately its topography over a 2-year period. Aerial photos taken from a drone, which are then processed using a computer vision algorithm, were used to derive the topographic datasets. Combination and careful interpretation of high-resolution topographic analyses reveal the internal mechanisms of the earthflow and its complex rotational structure, which is evolving over time.