An Unsupervised Method to Detect Rock Glacier Activity by Using Sentinel-1 SAR Interferometric Coherence: A Regional-Scale Study in the Eastern European Alps
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Rock glaciers are widespread periglacial landforms in mountain regions like the European Alps. Depending on their ice content, they are characterized by slow downslope displacement due to permafrost creep. These landforms are usually mapped within inventories, but understand their activity is a very difficult task, which is frequently accomplished using geomorphological field evidences, direct measurements, or remote sensing approaches. In this work, a powerful method to analyze the rock glaciers’ activity was developed exploiting the synthetic aperture radar (SAR) satellite data. In detail, the interferometric coherence estimated from Sentinel-1 data was used as key indicator of displacement, developing an unsupervised classification method to distinguish moving (i.e., characterized by detectable displacement) from no-moving (i.e., without detectable displacement) rock glaciers. The original application of interferometric coherence, estimated here using the rock glacier outlines as boundaries instead of regular kernel windows, allows describing the activity of rock glaciers at a regional-scale. The method was developed and tested over a large mountainous area located in the Eastern European Alps (South Tyrol and western part of Trentino, Italy) and takes into account all the factors that may limit the effectiveness of the coherence in describing the rock glaciers’ activity. The activity status of more than 1600 rock glaciers was classified by our method, identifying more than 290 rock glaciers as moving. The method was validated using an independent set of rock glaciers whose activity is well-known, obtaining an accuracy of 88%. Our method is replicable over any large mountainous area where rock glaciers are already mapped and makes it possible to compensate for the drawbacks of time-consuming and subjective analysis based on geomorphological evidences or other SAR approaches.