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Earth Surface Processes and Landforms


John Wiley & Sons Ltd.

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Channels change in response to natural or anthropogenic fluctuations in streamflow and/or sediment supply and measurements of channel change are critical to many river management applications. Whereas repeated field surveys are costly and time‐consuming, remote sensing can be used to detect channel change at multiple temporal and spatial scales. Repeat images have been widely used to measure long‐term channel change, but these measurements are only significant if the magnitude of change exceeds the uncertainty. Existing methods for characterizing uncertainty have two important limitations. First, while the use of a spatially variable image co‐registration error avoids the assumption that errors are spatially uniform, this type of error, as originally formulated, can only be applied to linear channel adjustments, which provide less information on channel change than polygons of erosion and deposition. Second, previous methods use a level‐of‐detection (LoD) threshold to remove non‐significant measurements, which is problematic because real changes that occurred but were smaller than the LoD threshold would be removed. In this study, we present a new method of quantifying uncertainty associated with channel change based on probabilistic, spatially varying estimates of co‐registration error and digitization uncertainty that obviates a LoD threshold. The spatially distributed probabilistic (SDP) method can be applied to both linear channel adjustments and polygons of erosion and deposition, making this the first uncertainty method generalizable to all metrics of channel change. Using a case study from the Yampa River, Colorado, we show that the SDP method reduced the magnitude of uncertainty and enabled us to detect smaller channel changes as significant. Additionally, the distributional information provided by the SDP method allowed us to report the magnitude of channel change with an appropriate level of confidence in cases where a simple LoD approach yielded an indeterminate result.


This is the pre-peer reviewed version of the following article: Leonard, C. M., Legleiter, C. J., Lea, D. M., and Schmidt, J. C. (2020) Measuring channel planform change from image time series: A generalizable, spatially distributed, probabilistic method for quantifying uncertainty. Earth Surf. Process. Landforms,, which has been published in final form at This article may be used for non-commercial purposes in accordance with Wiley Terms and Conditions for Use of Self-Archived Versions.