The application of millimetre-wave radar to the study of the cryosphere

  • William David Harcourt

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis (PhD)


This thesis develops the technique of millimetre-wave radar at 94 GHz for close-range remote sensing of glaciers and terrestrial snow cover (the cryosphere). The capabilities of 94 GHz radar for cryosphere mapping are demonstrated using the 2ⁿᵈ generation All-weather Volcano Topography Imaging Sensor (AVTIS2), which maps 3D terrain from real-beam scanning.

AVTIS2 acquires 3D point clouds of terrain and a comparison to co-located high density point clouds derived from Terrestrial Laser Scanner (TLS) data showed that AVTIS2 point cloud uncertainties were 1.5 m at 1.5 km and 3 m at 3 km. These values are smaller than other close-range radar systems used to map cryospheric terrain in 3D. Next, the distribution of Normalised Radar Cross Section (σ⁰) values over glacier ice at 94 GHz was found to be −17.0 < σ⁰ < −3.4; σ⁰ₘₑₐₙ = −9.9 dB and followed a log-normal distribution. These values are comparable to other terrain types at 94 GHz such as refrozen snow, wet snow and wet soil, hence glacier surfaces were found to be suitable targets for terrain mapping at 94 GHz.

These fundamental results were used to apply the AVTIS2 94 GHz radar for monitoring snow cover and glacier calving. Field trials in Scotland showed that the transition of wet snow to a refrozen snowpack in response to reductions in air temperature could be detected from changes in 94 GHz σ⁰. Snow hazard features could also be identified, such as post-avalanche debris accumulations which manifest as localised increases in radar backscatter. Next, 3D AVTIS2 data was used to quantify glacier calving rates at the Hansbreen tidewater glacier in Svalbard. A time series of ice cliff morphology derived from the AVTIS2 3D data sets exposed the role of melt undercutting and demonstrated the critical role of the ocean on calving processes in Svalbard.

The high accuracy 3D data acquired from AVTIS2 and the sensitivity of radar backscatter to surface changes has demonstrated the unique capabilities of 94 GHz radar for cryosphere mapping, paving the way forward for new applications and opportunities for close-range remote sensing of the cryosphere.
Date of Award14 Jun 2023
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of St Andrews
SupervisorDuncan Robertson (Supervisor), David Graham Macfarlane (Supervisor), Brice Rea (Supervisor), Matteo Spagnolo (Supervisor) & Doug I Benn (Supervisor)


  • Radar
  • Close range sensing
  • Remote sensing
  • Glaciology
  • Snow dynamics
  • Arctic
  • Point clouds

Access Status

  • Full text embargoed until
  • 18 January 2024

Cite this