Using structure from motion photogrammetry to measure past glacier changes from historic aerial photographs

Lauren J. Vargo, Brian M. Anderson, Huw J. Horgan, Andrew N. Mackintosh, Andrew M. Lorrey, Merijn Thornton

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleResearchpeer-review

12 Citations (Scopus)


Quantifying historic changes in glacier size and mass balance is important for understanding how the cryosphere responds to climate variability and change. Airborne photogrammetry enables glacier extent and equilibrium line altitudes (ELAs) to be monitored for more glaciers at lower cost than traditional mass-balance programs and other remote-sensing techniques. Since 1977, end-of-summer-snowlines, which are a proxy for annual ELAs, have been recorded for 50 glaciers in the Southern Alps of New Zealand using oblique aerial photographs. In this study, we use structure from motion photogrammetry to estimate the camera parameters, including position, for historic photographs, which we then use to measure glacier change. We apply this method to a small maritime New Zealand glacier (Brewster Glacier, 1670-2400 m a.s.l.) to derive annual ELA and length records between 1981 and 2017, and quantify the uncertainties associated with the method. Our length reconstruction shows largely continuous terminus retreat of 365 ± 12 m for Brewster Glacier since 1981. The ELA record, which compares well with glaciological mass-balance data measured between 2005 and 2015, shows pronounced interannual variability. Mean ELAs range from 1707 ± 6 to 2303 ± 5 m a.s.l., with the highest ELAs occurring in the last decade.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1105-1118
Number of pages14
JournalJournal of Glaciology
Issue number242
Publication statusPublished - 1 Dec 2017
Externally publishedYes


  • glacier fluctuations
  • glaciological instruments and methods
  • mass-balance reconstruction
  • mountain glaciers
  • remote sensing

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