Structure-from-motion using historical aerial images to analyse changes in glacier surface elevation

Nico Mölg*, Tobias Bolch

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

68 Citations (Scopus)


The application of structure-from-motion (SfM) to generate digital terrain models (DTMs) derived from different image sources has strongly increased, the major reason for this being that processing is substantially easier with SfM than with conventional photogrammetry. To test the functionality in a demanding environment, we applied SfM and conventional photogrammetry to archival aerial images from Zmuttgletscher, a mountain glacier in Switzerland, for nine dates between 1946 and 2005 using the most popular software packages, and compared the results regarding bundle adjustment and final DTM quality. The results suggest that by using SfM it is possible to produce DTMs of similar quality as with conventional photogrammetry. Higher point cloud density and less noise allow a higher ground resolution of the final DTM, and the time effort from the user is 3-6 times smaller, while the controls of the commercial software packages Agisoft PhotoScan (Version 1.2; Agisoft, St. Petersburg, Russia) and Pix4Dmapper (Version 3.0; Pix4D, Lausanne, Switzerland) are limited in comparison to ERDAS photogrammetry. SfM performs less reliably when few images with little overlap are processed. Even though SfM facilitates the largely automated production of high quality DTMs, the user is not exempt from a thorough quality check, at best with reference data where available. The resulting DTM time series revealed an average change in surface elevation at the glacier tongue of -67.0 ± 5.3 m. The spatial pattern of changes over time reflects the influence of flow dynamics and the melt of clean ice and that under debris cover. With continued technological advances, we expect to see an increasing use of SfM in glaciology for a variety of purposes, also in processing archival aerial imagery.

Original languageEnglish
Article number1021
JournalRemote Sensing
Issue number10
Publication statusPublished - 3 Oct 2017


  • Archival aerial images
  • Digital terrain model
  • Glacier elevation change
  • High mountain terrain
  • Stereo photogrammetry
  • Structure-from-motion


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