Between the tides: modelling the elevation of Australia’s exposed intertidal zone at continental scale
March 30, 2019

Authors: Bishop-Taylor, R., Sagar, S., Lymburner, L., Beaman, R.J.

Year: 2019

Publication: Between the tides: modelling the elevation of Australia’s exposed intertidal zone at continental scale. Estuarine, Coastal and Shelf Science in press. doi: 10.1016/j.ecss.2019.03.006


The intertidal zone represents a critical transition between marine and terrestrial ecosystems, supporting a complex mosaic of highly productive and biologically diverse habitats. However, our understanding of these important coastal environments is limited by a lack of spatially consistent topographic data, which can be extremely challenging and costly to obtain at continental-scale.

Satellite remote sensing represents an important resource for monitoring extensive coastal zones. Previous approaches to modelling the elevation of the intertidal zone using earth observation (EO) data have been restricted to small study regions or have relied on manual image interpretation, thus limiting their ability to be applied consistently over large geographic extents.

In this study, we present an automated open-source approach to generate satellite-derived elevation data for over 15,387 km2 of intertidal terrain across the entire Australian coastline. Our approach combines global tidal modelling with a 30-year time series archive of spatially and spectrally calibrated Landsat satellite data managed within the Digital Earth Australia (DEA) platform.

The resulting National Intertidal Digital Elevation Model (NIDEM) dataset provides an unprecedented three-dimensional representation of Australia’s vast exposed intertidal zone at 25 m spatial resolution. We validate our model against LiDAR, RTK GPS and multibeam bathymetry datasets, finding that modelled elevations are highly accurate across sandy beach (±0.41 m RMSE) and tidal flat environments (±0.39 m RMSE). Model performance was least accurate (±2.98 m RMSE) within rocky shores and reefs and other complex coastal environments with extreme and variable tidal regimes.

We discuss key challenges associated with modelling intertidal elevation including tidal model performance and biased observations from sun-synchronous satellites, and suggest future directions to improve the accuracy and utility of continental-scale intertidal elevation modelling. Our model can be applied to tidally-influenced coastal environments globally, addressing a key gap between the availability of sub-tidal bathymetry and terrestrial elevation data.

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link to Estuarine, Coastal and Shelf Science article

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