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A practitioner's guide to thermal infrared remote sensing of rivers and streams: recent advances, precautions and considerations

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Stream temperature is a key habitat variable controlling all physical and biological river processes. In light of the threat of climate change to fluvial environments, growing importance is being placed on the need to gain a better understanding of stream temperature dynamics. However, many current or historic stream temperature datasets are of very low spatial resolution. Such in situ measurements are often unable to provide the fine scale information on longitudinal or lateral temperature patterns necessary for understanding links between thermal heterogeneity and fluvial processes. In recent years, attention has therefore turned to the use of thermal infrared (TIR) remote sensing in order to acquire 2D stream temperature data at ecologically meaningful scales. While TIR remote sensing is a relatively mature technology in its own right, its application in fluvial environments is accompanied by a range of limitations and considerations that must be respected in order to ensure the acquisition of reasonable quality data. It is only in recent years that researchers have been started to shift from detailing the technical aspects of TIR imaging of river environments toward describing its application for river management and fundamental fluvial science. We critically review this recent research, demonstrating the utility of TIR for applied river temperature research. We also provide a detailed guide to the practical use of TIR in river environments with a view to further stimulating its use for advancing stream temperature science. WIREs Water 2016, 3:251–268. doi: 10.1002/wat2.1135

This article is categorized under:

  • Water and Life > Nature of Freshwater Ecosystems
  • Science of Water > Hydrological Processes
  • Science of Water > Water Quality
(a,b) ‘False‐positive’ cool water patch visible in airborne thermal infrared (TIR) imagery created by the presence of surface foam. (c) Close‐up handheld TIR image of different foam patch showing large difference in temperature between foam and free water surface.
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Shading of gravel bars by bankside vegetation makes them difficult to distinguish from cool water patches in thermal infrared (TIR) imagery.
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Effect of motion blur on thermal infrared (TIR) imagery acquired with a noncooled microbolometer camera. (a) Sharp image without noticeable motion blur. (b) Same location in subsequently acquired image containing motion blur due to vibration or gusting winds.
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Longitudinal temperature profiles derived from TIR imagery (survey on August 28, 2009) of the Rivière Ouelle and its tributary La Grande Rivière (Québec, Canada). See Ref for more details.
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Discrete cool water input to river channel (Rivière Assemetquagan, Québec, Canada) visible in (a) optical and (b) thermal infrared (TIR) image. Temperature difference between main stem and tributary input clearly revealed by TIR image.
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Growth in annual number of published articles describing the use of thermal infrared (TIR) imaging to assess stream temperature related phenomena since 1995.
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Temperature jump of approximately 1°C caused by the nonuniformity correction system of the thermal imaging camera.
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Change in radiant water temperature (~ +0.5°C) resulting from the mixing of the water surface by a boat's propeller. Air temperature (16.3°C) at the time of survey likely caused the water surface to cool in comparison to the water column (19.6°C), creating an inverse thermocline. The passage of the boats disrupted this thermocline, resulting in the presence of an anomalously warm patch.
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Water and Life > Nature of Freshwater Ecosystems
Science of Water > Hydrological Processes
Science of Water > Water Quality

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