Machine learning - An approach for consistent rock glacier mapping and inventorying - Example of Austria

Georg H. Erharter*, Thomas Wagner, Gerfried Winkler, Thomas Marcher

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Rock glaciers (RG) are landforms that occur in high latitudes or elevations and — in their active state — consist of a mixture of rock debris and ice. Despite serving as a form of groundwater storage, they are an indicator for the occurrence of (former) permafrost and therefore carry significance in the research for the ongoing climate change. For these reasons, the past years have shown rising interest in the establishment of RG inventories to investigate the extent of permafrost and quantify water storages. Creating these inventories, however, usually involves manual, laborious, and subjective mapping of the landforms based on aerial image - and digital elevation model analysis. We propose an approach for RG mapping based on supervised machine learning which can help to increase the mapping efficiency and permits rapid RG mapping in vast and not yet covered areas. We found deep convolutional artificial neural networks (ANN) that are specifically designed for image segmentation (U-Net architecture) to be well suited for this classification problem. The general workflow consists of training the ANNs with orthophotos and slope maps of digital elevation models as input. The output (RG label-maps) is derived from a recently published RG inventory of the Austrian Alps that features 5769 individual RGs and was compiled manually by several scientists. To increase the generalization capabilities, we use live data augmentation during training. Based on this inventory, the ANNs have learned the average expert opinion and the RG map generated by the ANN can be used to increase the consistency and completeness of already existing RG inventories. Moreover, this ANN approach might be valuable for other landform mapping tasks beyond rock glaciers (e.g., other mass movements).
Original languageEnglish
Article number100093
JournalApplied Computing and Geosciences
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2022


  • Rock glacier inventory
  • Permafrost
  • Hydrological catchment
  • Digital mapping
  • Machine learning
  • Image segmentation

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Computer Science(all)

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