Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Units Program: New York
Education, Research and Technical Assistance for Managing Our Natural Resources

Murphy RD, Hagan JA, Harris BP, Sethi SA, Smeltz TS, Restrepo F. (2021) Can Landsat thermal imagery and environmental data accurately estimate water temperatures in small streams? Journal of Fish and Wildlife Management. 12:12-26.


The ability to monitor water temperature is important for assessing changes in riverine ecosystems resulting from climate warming. Direct in situ water temperature collection efforts provide point-samples but are cost-prohibitive for characterizing stream temperatures across large spatial scales, especially for small, remote streams. In contrast, satellite thermal infrared imagery may provide a spatially extensive means of monitoring riverine water temperatures, however, the accuracy of these remotely sensed temperatures for small streams is not well understood. Here, we investigated the utility of Landsat 8 thermal infrared imagery and both local and regional environmental variables to estimate subsurface temperatures in high latitude small streams (2 – 30 m wetted width), from a test watershed in southcentral Alaska. Our results suggested that Landsat-based surface temperatures were biased high, and the degree of bias varied with hydrological and meteorological factors. However, with limited in-stream validation work, results indicated it is possible to reconstruct average in situ water temperatures for small streams at regional-scales using a regression modelling framework coupled with publicly-available Landsat or air temperature information. Generalized additive models built from stream stage information from a single gage and air temperatures from a single weather station in the drainage fit to a limited set of in situ temperature recordings could estimate average stream temperatures at the watershed-level with reasonable accuracy (root mean square error = 2.4°C). Landsat information did track closely with regional air temperatures and could also be incorporated into a regression model as a substitute for air temperature to estimate in situ stream temperatures at watershed scales. Importantly, however, while average watershed-scale stream temperatures may be predictable, site-level estimates did not improve with the use of Landsat information or other local covariates, indicating that additional information may be necessary to generate accurate spatially explicit temperature predictions for small order streams.