Arctic-Boreal rivers, wetlands, and lakes

Remote North American Arctic and sub-Arctic landscapes contain the greatest abundance of surface water bodies on Earth. Despite their importance to global carbon and water cycles, ecosystems, and human activities most receive little to no study. Each spring the northern high latitudes undergo rapid transformations driven by sharply seasonal climate, melting snow and ice, and annual freeze/thaw cycles. Due to the fine spatial scale of most surface water processes, their associated dynamics are not readily observed from traditional single-sensor remote sensing approaches.

Our research blends remote sensing technologies with cutting-edge field campaigns to assess surface water dynamics across northern Canada and Alaska. Field methods include precision GPS surveys, hydrometric measurements, water quality, and greenhouse gas sampling. 

Remote sensing technologies include satellites (e.g. Sentinel, Landsat, MODIS, ICESAT-2, SAR, and high-frequency Planet Cubesat images), drones, and targeted flight campaigns from the NASA Arctic-Boreal Vulnerability Experiment (

Sample publications:

Kyzivat, E.D., Smith, L.C., Pitcher, L.H., Fayne, J.V., Cooley, S.W., Cooper, M.G., Topp, S.N., Langhorst, T., Harlan, M., Horvat, C., Gleason, C.J., Pavelsky, T.M. (2019) A high-resolution airborne color-infrared camera water mask for the NASA ABoVE campaign. Remote Sensing 11(18): 2163.

*Pitcher, L.H, Pavelsky, T.M., Smith, L.C., Moller, D.K., Altenau, E.H., Allen, G.H., Lion, C., Butman, D., Cooley, S.W., Fayne, J., Bertram, M. (2019) AirSWOT InSAR mapping of surface water elevations and hydraulic gradients across the Yukon Flats Basin, Alaska. Water Resources Research, 55, 937– 953.

Cooley, S. W., Smith, L. C., Ryan, J. C., Pitcher, L. H., & Pavelsky, T. M. (2019). Arctic‐Boreal lake dynamics revealed using CubeSat imagery. Geophysical Research Letters, 46.

Cooley, S.W., Smith, L.C., Stepan, L., Mascaro, J. (2017) Tracking Dynamic Northern Surface Water Changes with High-Frequency Planet CubeSat Imagery. Remote Sensing 9(12), 1306,

Yang, K., Smith, L.C., Fettweis, X, Gleason, C.J., Lu, Y., Li, M. (2019) Surface meltwater runoff on the Greenland ice sheet estimated from remotely sensed supraglacial lake infilling rate (2019). Remote Sensing of Environment 234, 111459,

Pitcher, L.H., and Smith, L.C. (2019) Supraglacial Streams and Rivers. Annual Review of Earth and Planetary Sciences 47:1, 421-452,

Ryan, J.C., Smith, L.C., Van As, D., Cooley, S.W., Cooper, M.G., Pitcher, L.H, Hubbard, A. (2019) Greenland Ice Sheet surface melt amplified by snowline migration and bare ice exposure Science Advances 5(3), eaav3738,

Cooper, M. G., Smith, L. C., Rennermalm, A. K., Miege C., Pitcher, L. H, Ryan, J. C., Yang, K., and Cooley, S. (2018), Near surface meltwater storage in low-density bare ice of the Greenland ice sheet ablation zone, The Cryosphere, 12, 955-970,

Meltwater runoff from the Greenland Ice Sheet

Meltwater runoff from the Greenland Ice Sheet is a major contributor to global sea level rise. Our team pioneered the use of extreme field campaigns and remote sensing to quantify the production and transport of meltwater flowing across its surface. These measurements provide rare real-world datasets to test and improve the world’s leading regional climate models, which are used to forecast Greenland’s future meltwater contributions to sea level rise. 

Our work also seeks to advance basic scientific understanding of the most melt-intensive area of the ice sheet where 90% of runoff is generated – the bare-ice ablations zone – which has historically received light study relative to other areas of the ice sheet.

Sample publications:

Smith, L.C., Yang, K., Pitcher, L.H, Overstreet, B.T., Chu, V.W., Rennermalm, Å.K., Ryan, J.C., Cooper, M.G., Gleason, C.J., Tedesco, M., Jeyaratnam, J., van As, D. van den Broeke, M.R., van de Berg, W.J., Noël, B., Langen, P.I, Cullather, R.I., Zhao, B., Willis, M.J., Hubbard, A., Box, J.E., Jenner, B.A., Behar, A.E. (2017). Direct measurements of meltwater runoff on the Greenland Ice Sheet surface, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) 114 (50) E10622-E10631.

Three-dimensional remote sensing of surface water

Surface hydrology studies traditionally use remote sensing to map the extents of water bodies and their areal changes over time. However, advancing satellite technology now enables estimation of water surface elevations, river discharge, and their variations over space and time. 

These technologies include lidar and interferometric synthetic aperture radar (InSAR) being deployed on airborne and satellite platforms. Our lab is deeply involved with the scientific use of water surface elevations, discharge retrievals, and storage changes using AirSWOT, ICESAT-2, and forthcoming NASA/CNES/CSA SWOT (Surface Water and Ocean Topography) satellite mission.

Sample publications:

Gleason, C.J., Smith, L.C., Lee, J. (2014) Retrieval of river discharge solely from satellite imagery and at-many-stations hydraulic geometry: Sensitivity to river form and optimization parameters. Water Resources Research, 50(12), 9604-9619,

Gleason, C.J., and Smith, L.C. (2014) Toward global mapping of river discharge using satellite images and at-many-stations hydraulic geometry. Proc. Nat. Acad. Sci (PNAS), 111 (13), 4788-4791

SMITH, L.C., AND T.M. PAVELSKY (2009) Remote sensing of volumetric storage changes in lakes, Earth Surface Processes and Landforms 34, 1353-1358.

SMITH, L.C., AND T.M. PAVELSKY (2008) Estimation of river discharge, propagation speed, and hydraulic geometry from space: Lena River, Siberia. Water Resources Research 44, W03427

Altenau, E.H., Pavelsky, T.M., Moller, D., Pitcher, L.H., Bates, P.D., Durand, M.T. and Smith, L.C. (2019) Temporal variations in river water surface elevation and slope captured by AirSWOT. Remote Sensing of Environment 224, 304-316

Pitcher, L.H, Pavelsky, T.M., Smith, L.C., Moller, D.K., Altenau, E.H., Allen, G.H., Lion, C., Butman, D., Cooley, S.W., Fayne, J., Bertram, M. (2019) AirSWOT InSAR mapping of surface water elevations and hydraulic gradients across the Yukon Flats Basin, Alaska. Water Resources Research, 55, 937– 953.

Durand, M., Gleason, C.J., Garambois, P.A., Bjerklie, D., Smith, L. C., Roux, H., Rodriguez, E., Bates, P. D., Pavelsky, T. M., Monnier, J., Chen, X., Di Baldassarre, G., Fiset, J.-M., Flipo, N., Frasson, R. P. d. M., Fulton, J., Goutal, N., Hossain, F., Humphries, E., Minear, J.T., Mukolwe, M.M., Neal, J.C., Ricci, S., Sanders, B.F., Schumann, G., Schubert, J.E., Vilmin, L. (2016), An intercomparison of remote sensing river discharge estimation algorithms from measurements of river height, width, and slope, Water Resources Research, 52, 4527–4549,

Altenau, E. H., T. M. Pavelsky, D. Moller, C. Lion, L. H. Pitcher, G. H. Allen, P. D. Bates, S. Calmant, M. Durand, and L. C. Smith (2017), AirSWOT measurements of river water surface elevation and slope: Tanana River, AK, Geophysical Research Letters, 44, 181–189,

Cooley, S.W., Ryan, J.C., Smith, L.C., Horvat, C., Pearson, B., Lynch A.H. (2020) Coldest Canadian Arctic communities face greatest reductions in shorefast sea ice. Nature Climate Change,

Bennett, M.M., and Smith, L.C. (2017), Advances in using multitemporal night-time lights satellite imagery to detect, estimate, and monitor socioeconomic dynamics. Remote Sensing of Environment 192, 176-197,

Bennett, M.M., and Smith, L.C. (2017), Using multitemporal night-time lights data to compare regional development in Russia and China, 1992–2012, International Journal of Remote Sensing,

Stephenson, S. R. and Smith, L. C. (2015), Influence of climate model variability on projected Arctic shipping futures. Earth’s Future, 3, 331–343,

Stephenson, S.R., Brigham, L.W., Smith, L.C., (2014), Marine accessibility along Russia’s Northern Sea Route. Polar Geography, 37(2), 111-133,

Smith, L.C., and S.R. Stephenson, New Arctic shipping routes navigable by midcentury (2013) Proc. Nat. Acad. Sci. (PNAS) 110(13) E1191–E1195,

SMITH, L.C., Agents of Change in the New North (2011) Eurasian Geography and Economics 52(1), 30–55,

Blom, A., Brady, A.-M., Brigham, L., Conley, H., Daly, M., Hamilton, N., Hansen, Rúni M., Harper, S., Henriksen, S., Kamikawa, Y., Kortunov, A.V., Minerd, S., Pickard, A., Roosevelt, T, Smith, L.C., Støre, J.-G., Tae-Yul, C., Treadwell, M., Tschudi, F.H., Volynets, A., Winther, J.-G., Yuhang, W (2015) Arctic Investment Protocol. Technical Report. World Economic Forum, Geneva, Switzerland.

Sustainable Arctic policy and development

Climatic and physical changes now underway in the northern high latitudes are colliding with economic, cultural, political, and historical legacies of the region. The Arctic, in particular, is home to some 4 million people and >$230B economy, long under the jurisdiction of eight sovereign nations (Russia, Finland, Norway, Sweden, Iceland, Greenland/Denmark, Canada and the United States) and, more recently and to varying degrees, indigenous home-rule agreements.

Offshore, Arctic coastal waters fall within national Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) with further seafloor sovereignty extensions available through Article 76 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Declining sea ice cover has raised widespread interest in the region, leading to numerous misperceptions.

Our research therefore seeks to demystify the Arctic through study of societal, as well as geophysical changes, in this iconic yet fascinatingly complex region.

Sample publications:

Smith, L.C., and S.R. Stephenson, New Arctic shipping routes navigable by midcentury (2013) Proc. Nat. Acad. Sci. (PNAS) 110(13) E1191–E1195,

Stephenson, S.R., Smith, L.C., Brigham, L.W., and J.A. Agnew (2013) Projected 21st-century changes to Arctic marine access, Climatic Change 118(3), 885-899,

STEPHENSON, S.R., SMITH, L.C., AND J.A. AGNEW (2011) Divergent long-term trajectories of human access to the Arctic, Nature Climate Change 1, 156–160,

Our Office

Northern Change Research Laboratory
Institute at Brown for Environment and Society (IBES)
Brown University
Box 1951
85 Waterman Street
Providence, RI 02912

Contact Us

(401) 863-3449