Direct snow depth measurements are sparse, especially in remote areas. In this study, we assess the potential of ICESat laser altimetry for providing snow depths for its operational period 2003–2009 on the example of the Scandinavian Mountains in southern Norway. Snow cover during ICESat campaigns typically results in positive elevation differences (dh) between ICESat GLAH14 elevations and reference elevations from Digital Elevation Models (DEMs). Three DEMs are used: the Norwegian national DEM for the entire study area, and the SRTM DEM and a high-resolution airborne lidar DEM for a spatial subset on the Hardangervidda mountain plateau. To account for uncertainty in elevation data, ICESat samples are grouped into spatial subsets, elevation bands, and over time (e.g. all winter campaigns together). We find that ICESat has the potential to provide regional-scale snow depths for the years 2003–2009 for its winter (March) and late spring (June) campaigns. ICESat-derived snow depth time series for different elevation bands agree well with measured (RMSE 0.47 m) and modelled (RMSE 0.61 m) snow depths in the study area. Annual differences in snow amounts and the increase of snow depths with elevation and coastal proximity over the study area are correctly reproduced. Uncertainties in reference elevations exceed ICESat elevation uncertainty and good control over errors and biases in reference DEMs turn out essential. Spatially varying vertical offsets between ICESat and the reference DEMs make it necessary to bias-correct March/June snow depths with autumn dh per spatial unit or elevation band. Best results are achieved when samples are summarised per season over the entire observation period. After correction of local DEM biases, the spatial pattern of ICESat 2003–2009 March dh matches spatially distributed modelled snow depths in southern Norway with decimeter-scale accuracy. In the western part of Hardangervidda, ICESat-based March snow depths agree better with measurements (RMSE ≤0.15 m for all DEMs) than modelled snow depths do (RMSE 0.61 m). In eastern Hardangervidda, the coarse resolution SRTM DEM (RMSE 0.41 m) performs better than the 10 m Norwegian DEM (RMSE 0.64 m) which is based on a less consistent mosaic of elevation data. Using the high-resolution lidar DEM, even single footprints show good agreement (R2 0.59, RMSE 0.94 m) with measured snow depths from the same year. Snow depth estimates could be further improved by using full waveform ICESat data or elevation measurements from ICESat-2 once this satellite is operational. Good quality reference DEMs may still be acquired in the future even in areas where no such data exists today.
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