Characterising northern estuaries using Digital Earth Australia

This report provides a preliminary assessment of the utility of a satellite remote sensing approach for the identification and characterisation of coastal habitats that are critical for threatened and migratory species in northern Australia. This work is part of the Habitats research theme in the A12 Northern Seascapes Scoping Project. The Australian Landsat archive in the Digital Earth Australia (DEA) analysis platform for satellite imagery was utilised to demonstrate its potential for mapping intertidal areas and mangrove extent, and changes over time in the extent of coastal landforms and habitats.

Seven estuaries were examined, Darwin Harbour and the Keep, Daly, Roper, Macarthur, Flinders and Gilbert River estuaries. The estuaries were selected by the A12 Project team because they are known to provide important areas for the species of interest. Features of importance to shorebird populations were a focus. The focus of this scoping work was to utilise the DEA Landsat archive to build understanding of the effects of tidal dynamics on intertidal habitats across this region of large and complex tides, examine approaches to mapping the extent of key coastal habitats, and test the potential of the archive to detect coastal habitat change, in particular mangrove.

In northern Australia, cloud interference can make it difficult to obtain clear satellite imagery. To avoid this issue, the geometric median of surface reflectance values was used with tide-tagged imagery, subset by tide height and date, to produce crisp, cloud-free composite images that depict the maximum and minimum observed tidal extent in the seven estuaries.

Tide-tagging of satellite imagery was also successfully employed to allow any tide induced change to be removed from change-detection analyses and clearly depict the intertidal extent. Application of the Intertidal Extent Model in the DEA enabled the extent and morphology of estuarine intertidal environments to be mapped. The DEA also enabled habitat change detection using the fully processed, high density, three decade long Landsat time series. The results clearly depict the dynamic nature of some areas, including large-scale rapid island growth and mangrove expansion (e.g. Keep River and Gilbert River estuaries), gradual long-term expansion of mangrove (Flinders River and McArthur River estuaries), and estuaries with areas of rapid recent die back of mangrove (Roper River and Flinders estuaries). This information is important for the management of key species as well decisions around coastal developments. With Landsat and new satellite data streams (e.g. Sentinel 2) continually being added to the DEA, this time-series analysis approach could be developed into an effective habitat extent and condition monitoring tool for northern Australia.

The image products and analysis tools employed in this study demonstrate the potential utility of DEA for mapping the extent and dynamics of key coastal and estuarine habitats utilised by threatened and migratory species. To better inform the management of these species, a key next step in this approach is to utilise ground-validation data to enable these habitats to be robustly classified and quantified using the Landsat archive. This analysis should provide important baseline information and enable the extent and condition of key habitats to be monitored.


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