Detecting Avalanche Deposits using Variational Autoencoder on Sentinel-1 Satellite Imagery (Papers Track) Spotlight

Saumya Sinha (University of Colorado, Boulder); Sophie Giffard-Roisin (University of Colorado Boulder); Fatima Karbou (Meteo France); Michael Deschatres (Irstea); Nicolas Eckert (Irstea); Anna Karas (Meteo France); Cécile Coléou (Meteo France); Claire Monteleoni (University of Colorado Boulder)

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Extreme Weather Climate Science & Modeling


Avalanche monitoring is a crucial safety challenge, especially in a changing climate. Remote sensing of avalanche deposits can be very useful to identify avalanche risk zones and time periods, which can in turn provide insights about the effects of climate change. In this work, we use Sentinel-1 SAR (synthetic aperture radar) data on the French Alps for the exceptional winter of 2017-18, with the goal of automatically detecting avalanche deposits. We address our problem with an unsupervised learning technique. We treat an avalanche as a rare event, or an anomaly, and we learn a variational autoencoder, in order to isolate the anomaly. We then evaluate our method on labeled test data, using an independent in-situ avalanche inventory as ground truth. Our empirical results show that our unsupervised method obtains comparable performance to a recent supervised learning approach that trained a convolutional neural network on an artificially balanced version of the same SAR data set along with the corresponding ground-truth labels. Our unsupervised approach outperforms the standard CNN in terms of balanced accuracy (63% as compared to 55%). This is a significant improvement, as it allows our method to be used in-situ by climate scientists, where the data is always very unbalanced (< 2% positives). This is the first application of unsupervised deep learning to detect avalanche deposits.

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