Finding navigable paths through tidal flats with Synthetic Aperture Radar

Clark, Ruaridh A. and McGrath, Ciara N. and Werkmeister, Astrid A. and Lowe, Christopher J. and Gibbons, Gwilym and Macdonald, Malcolm (2024) Finding navigable paths through tidal flats with Synthetic Aperture Radar. Remote Sensing, 16 (6). 1057. ISSN 2072-4292 (

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Tidal flats are some of the most dynamic coastal environments in the world, where traditional coastal mapping and monitoring provide insufficient temporal resolution to reliably map channels and sand flats. Satellite-based Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) enables regular cloud-penetrating detection of water flowing through channels within the tidal flats, referred to as tidal channels. This paper presents a method for detecting a path through tidal channels, using satellite imagery, that supports our understanding and safe exploitation of this valuable coastal environment. This approach is the first proposed to identify navigable paths in all conditions, with SAR images susceptible to variation due to weather and tidal conditions. Tidal channels are known to vary in SAR presentation, and we find that tidal flat presentation is also influenced by conditions. The most influential factor is the wind, with high winds causing an inversion in how both tidal flats and tidal channels present in SAR images. The presented method for the automatic detection of tidal channels accounts for this variability by using previous channel paths as a reference to reliably correct imagery and detect the latest path. The final algorithm produces paths with minor errors in 17.6% of images; the error rate increases to 71.7%, with an almost tenfold increase in errors, when the SAR image and paths are not adjusted to account for conditions. This capability has been used to support the Nith Inshore Rescue in attending call-outs from their base in Glencaple, UK, while the insights from monitoring tidal channels for a year demonstrate how periods of high river flow preceded major changes in the channel path.