Introducing PebbleCounts: a grain-sizing tool for photo surveys of dynamic gravel-bed rivers
Grain-size distributions are a key geomorphic metric of gravel-bed rivers. Traditional measurement methods include manual counting or photo sieving, but these are achievable only at the 1–10 m2 scale. With the advent of drones and increasingly high-resolution cameras, we can now generate orthoimagery over hectares at millimeter to centimeter resolution. These scales, along with the complexity of high-mountain rivers, necessitate different approaches for photo sieving. As opposed to other image segmentation methods that use a watershed approach, our open-source algorithm, PebbleCounts, relies on k-means clustering in the spatial and spectral domain and rapid manual selection of well-delineated grains. This improves grain-size estimates for complex riverbed imagery, without post-processing. We also develop a fully automated method, PebbleCountsAuto, that relies on edge detection and filtering suspect grains, without the k-means clustering or manual selection steps. The algorithms are tested in controlled indoor conditions on three arrays of pebbles and then applied to 12 × 1 m2 orthomosaic clips of high-energy mountain rivers collected with a camera-on-mast setup (akin to a low-flying drone). A 20-pixel b-axis length lower truncation is necessary for attaining accurate grain-size distributions. For the k-means PebbleCounts approach, average percentile bias and precision are 0.03 and 0.09 ψ, respectively, for ∼1.16 mm pixel−1 images, and 0.07 and 0.05 ψ for one 0.32 mm pixel−1 image. The automatic approach has higher bias and precision of 0.13 and 0.15 ψ, respectively, for ∼1.16 mm pixel−1 images, but similar values of −0.06 and 0.05 ψ for one 0.32 mm pixel−1 image. For the automatic approach, only at best 70 % of the grains are correct identifications, and typically around 50 %. PebbleCounts operates most effectively at the 1 m2 patch scale, where it can be applied in ∼5–10 min on many patches to acquire accurate grain-size data over 10–100 m2 areas. These data can be used to validate PebbleCountsAuto, which may be applied at the scale of entire survey sites (102–104 m2). We synthesize results and recommend best practices for image collection, orthomosaic generation, and grain-size measurement using both algorithms.