Thermal Photogrammetric Imaging: A New Technique for Monitoring
Samuel T. Thielea,b*, Nick Varleya & Mike R. Jamesc
aColima Intercambio e Investigación en Vulcanología, Universidad de Colima, av. Universidad 333, Las
Viboras C.P. 28040, Colima, México
bSchool of Earth, Atmosphere and Environment, Monash University, Clayton VIC 3800, Australia
cLancaster Environment Centre, Lancaster University, Lancaster LA1 4YQ, UK
*Corresponding Author: firstname.lastname@example.org
Structure-from-motion (SfM) algorithms greatly facilitate the generation of 3-D topographic models
from photographs and can form a valuable component of hazard monitoring at active volcanic domes.
However, model generation from visible imagery can be prevented due to poor lighting conditions or
surface obscuration by degassing. Here, we show that thermal images can be used in a SfM workflow
to mitigate these issues and provide more continuous time-series data than visible-light equivalents.
We demonstrate our methodology by producing georeferenced photogrammetric models from 30
near-monthly overflights of the lava dome that formed at Volcán de Colima (Mexico) between 2013
and 2015. Comparison of thermal models with equivalents generated from visible-light photographs
from a consumer digital single lens reflex (DSLR) camera suggests that, despite being less detailed than
their DSLR counterparts, the thermal models are more than adequate reconstructions of dome
geometry, giving volume estimates within 10% of those derived using the DSLR.
Significantly, we were able to construct thermal models in situations where degassing and poor
lighting prevented the construction of models from DSLR imagery, providing substantially better data
continuity than would have otherwise been possible. We conclude that thermal photogrammetry
provides a useful new tool for monitoring effusive volcanic activity and assessing associated volcanic
Key words: Lava Dome, Photogrammetry, Thermal Imaging, Volcán de Colima
Lava domes are known to pose significant volcanic hazards, due to their tendency to generate collapse
related pyroclastic flows and their association with explosive eruptions (Fink and Anderson, 2000). For
example, successive dome collapses at Soufrière Hills on the island of Montserrat, starting in 1995,
caused the evacuation and eventual abandonment of the capital Plymouth and surrounding areas
(Wadge et al., 2014), while the 1994 collapse of Mount Merapi (Indonesia) resulted in 95 deaths and
damage to several villages (Abdurachman et al., 2000). A similar event at Volcán de Colima in 2015
generated pyroclastic flows that travelled ~10 km, fortunately causing only minor damage.
Monitoring of dome geometry (e.g. volume and height), growth rate and deformation is key to
forecasting such dome collapse events (Voight, 2000), and photogrammetry and structure from
motion (SfM) are increasingly being used for this purpose (e.g. Herd et al., 2005; Ryan et al., 2010;
Diefenbach et al., 2012; James and Varley, 2012; Diefenbach et al., 2013). Using these techniques,
morphological and geometric data can be safely and inexpensively acquired, and used to track
eruption progress, identify signs of instability or changes in effusion rate, and forecast changes in
volcanic risk. These methods, however, rely on clear viewing conditions and so are highly sensitive to
degassing, cloud and poor lighting conditions.
Thermal imaging techniques are also widely used for monitoring purposes (Spampinato et al., 2011),
as they allow quantitative evaluation of heat flux from volcanic vents (e.g. Harris and Stevenson, 1997;
Sahetapy-Engel et al., 2008), domes (e.g. Hutchison et al., 2013; Pallister et al., 2013), flows (e.g.
Calvari et al., 2003; James et al., 2006) and fumaroles (e.g. Stevenson and Varley, 2008; Harris et al.,
2009). Importantly, the spatial distribution of heat flux can reveal features that are difficult to detect
using reflected visible light, such as fumaroles, fractures and rock fall traces (Hutchison et al., 2013;
Mueller et al., 2013).
Changes in the distribution and intensity of thermal anomalies can also precede volcanic eruptions or
changes in eruptive style (Spampinato et al., 2011) and thus have potential for hazard forecasting.
However, to facilitate inter-survey comparisons, thermal data need to be spatially referenced, and
producing orthorectified thermal maps usually requires additional topographic data, knowledge of the
camera location and viewing direction (e.g. James et al., 2006; James et al., 2009; Lewis et al., 2015).
This study demonstrates a method for deriving topographic data and georeferenced thermal maps
directly from oblique thermal imagery using SfM techniques and imagery captured during an episode
of dome growth at Volcán de Colima (Mexico) between 2013 and 2015. We suggest that the resulting
three-dimensional thermal models provide intuitive and georeferenced representations of dome
surface temperature and valuable measurements of dome geometry. Furthermore, we demonstrate
that despite the lower spatial resolution of thermal images, dome volume estimates are comparable
to those estimated using SfM reconstructions deriving from visible-light digital single lens reflex (DSLR)
photographs, and that unlike the DSLR models, the thermal models can be constructed during periods
of poor lighting and extensive degassing.
Volcán de Colima is an andesitic and frequently erupting stratovolcano, located at the western limit
of the Trans-Mexican Volcanic Belt. During the most recent eruptive periods, six episodes of dome
growth have been observed at the volcano (1998–1999, 2001–2003, 2004, 2007–2011, 2013–2015
and an ongoing episode initiated in February 2016). This represents the most active period at the
volcano since its last catastrophic eruption in 1913. A range of effusion rates have been estimated,
with the longer-lived eruptions associated with rates as low as 0.01 m3 s-1. During the current eruption
the volcano has exhibited the continuous generation of small Vulcanian explosions with a frequency
of the order of hours. Larger magnitude explosions usually follow periods of dome emplacement,
which re-excavate the summit crater.
The episode of dome growth investigated in this study began in January 2013 when lava erupted into
the base of a ~150 m wide and ~50 m deep crater formed (by several large explosions that same
month) on top of a previous (2007 to 2011) lava dome. The new dome proceeded to fill this crater and
by April 2013 overflowed to form several lava flows and eventually fill the entire summit crater (~300
m across). Several partial collapses (accompanied by increased volcanic activity) resulted in dome
destruction on 10 – 11 July 2015; pyroclastic density currents generated by these collapses travelled
up to ~10.6 km along the ravine of Montegrande, threatening several ranches and the town of
Quesaría (pop. 8611 in 2010). This eruption was the largest (by volume) at Volcán de Colima since
2.1. Image capture and pre-processing
Images (Fig. 1) were acquired using a consumer DSLR (Nikon D90) and a thermal camera (Jenoptik
VarioCAM HiRes) from a light aircraft during 30 observation flights, conducted at intervals of
approximately one month. The DSLR had an 18–105 mm zoom lens (most images were captured using
the 105 mm setting), while the thermal camera used a 75 mm fixed-focal lens. Thermal images had an
order of magnitude lower resolution than the DSLR images (640×480 pixels and 4288×2848 pixels
Observational flights involved 2–3 circuits around the crater at a slightly higher elevation than the
summit. Typical viewing distances varied between ~1–3 km, corresponding to ground sampling
distances of ~5-15 cm/pixel for the DSLR camera (at full zoom) and ~25-75 cm/pixel for the thermal
camera. Both cameras were operated by hand, with DSLR photographs captured every ~5–10 seconds
and the thermal camera programmed to take an image every 3.5 seconds.
Blurry and poorly exposed images were manually removed from the resulting image sets (of ~100
DSLR images and ~200–400 thermal images) prior to photogrammetric processing. Normally, ~50–75
DSLR images and ~100–200 thermal images were considered usable, though this varied substantially
with viewing conditions.
The thermal images were converted from Jenoptic’s proprietary IRB format to JPEG (using a colour
scale selected to maximise the amount of detail visible on the dome and volcanic flanks) before
photogrammetric processing. A second set of JPEG images were additionally created from the thermal
images using a fixed colour scale, and later projected onto the photogrammetric model to create a
thermal texture map that can be compared between models.
Figure 1. Examples of typical DSLR (left) and thermal (right) images from two different observation
flights. Both views are looking to the north-west, and the summit region is ~300 m across.
2.2. Structure from Motion
Photogrammetric processing of both the DSLR and thermal datasets was performed using Agisoft
Photoscan Professional Edition (v1.2.3). Prior to 3D reconstruction, both photosets were masked to
remove degassing plumes, aircraft parts and unnecessary background, ensuring that only the edifice
region was reconstructed. SfM methods were applied to estimate camera locations, orientations and
internal parameters and produce a ‘sparse point cloud’ containing the location of tens of thousands
of automatically detected features. These data were then used to constrain a detailed reconstruction
of the volcanic edifice, producing a ‘dense point cloud’ typically containing 10 – 20 million points for
the DSLR models and ~0.5 million points for the thermal models.
Finally, a continuous triangulated surface model was derived from the dense point cloud for image
rendering. For practical reasons, we limited the model to 1 million triangles, prior to texturing by
projecting the original images onto its surface. For the thermal models, the photoset used to construct
the model was exchanged with the photoset with a consistent colour-scale prior to the texturing step.
2.3. Georeferencing and Alignment
Due to difficult access and high risk, ground control points were not available for any of the models.
Instead, similar to the approach used by James and Varley (2012), models generated from the DSLR
images were georeferenced (within Agisoft Photoscan) by minimising the distance between features
identified on the models and equivalent features located in Google Earth imagery. Here, we
additionally used 1-arc second SRTM (Shuttle Radar Topographic Mission) data from February 2000 to
derive elevations. As the morphology of the summit area changed substantially over the study period,
it was necessary to use Google Earth imagery from different dates for some models, causing relative
translations of the results (reflecting the georeferencing error within Google Earth; coordinates of
some static features changed by >20 meters between imagery from different dates).
To improve the registration between models and facilitate direct comparisons, the relative
georeferencing of each model was optimised by aligning to one reference model (from 11 January
2013) using the iterative closest point (ICP) alignment implementation in Cloud Compare (Girardeau-
Montaut, 2015). Model location, orientation and scale was allowed to vary during this step, during
which areas known to have changed (i.e. the dome and associated flows) were manually excluded.
Models constructed using thermal images could not generally be georeferenced from the Google
Earth imagery due to difficulties identifying corresponding features in the thermal data. Instead, they
were aligned to the DSLR model from the same flight (or from a previous flight if the DSLR model had
failed), using a manual 3-D point-matching approach in Meshlab (Cignoni et al., 2008) to achieve an
initial alignment that was then optimised using ICP.
Where possible, the similarity (and alignment) of the DSLR and thermal models was assessed by
comparison with DSLR models generated from the same flight. As the ICP alignment algorithm only
applies a scaling and rigid body transformation, similarities between the DSLR and thermal models
suggest that the photogrammetric reconstructions converge on a consistent surface shape, adding
confidence to the results. Note that while this assessment provides an indication of uncertainty in the
overall model shapes, it cannot evaluate the full geospatial uncertainty because the thermal models
are not independently georeferenced.
2.4. Volume Calculation
Dome volume was estimated by determining the difference between each photogrammetric model
and the pre-dome reference model created photogrammetrically using data from a flight on 11
January 2013. The difference calculations (performed using a Java implementation of the signed
tetrahedral method; Zhang and Chen, 2001) determined the volume between the surfaces in up to
four ‘regions of interest’ (ROI; Fig. 2). In this instance, a ROI containing the lava dome was defined for
each of the photogrammetric models (both DSLR and thermal), and the volume of the dome estimated
by comparison with a reference surface representing the pre-dome topography. Where the dome
overflowed the crater (and transitioned into a lava flow), a consistent (but visually estimated) ‘dome
boundary’ was defined (the boundary between regions a and b in Fig. 2), and the volume of the upper
portion of a lava flow was also determined.
In order to better evaluate the uncertainty of the volume estimates, change within two stable
reference areas on the flanks of the volcano was also calculated; because these areas should not vary,
detecting volume change within them suggests greater uncertainty in the topographic models or their
relative registration. These changes were expressed as mean vertical offsets that could then be used
to estimate the dome volume (positive or negative) that likely resulted from alignment errors. Note
however, that these reference areas were always located on the eastern flanks of the volcano, as the
western flanks changed substantially over the study period (due to lava flows), and hence are not
equally sensitive to all types of alignment error (e.g. translations or rotations) in dome area.
Figure 2: Oblique view of the ‘regions of interest’ defined for the 27/4/13 photogrammetric model.
Region (a) contains the growing lava dome, and (b) the incipient lava flow. Regions (c) and (d) are the
reference areas. The colour map represents the vertical distance between the comparison and
reference surfaces. The dome region (a) is ~140 m across.
3. Results and Discussion
The 30 survey flights allowed the construction of 19 usable models from visible imagery and 22 models
from the thermal imagery, although thermal data was only available for 23 flights. These datasets
provide a reconstruction of the summit lava dome geometry at ~monthly intervals for the entire
3.1. Comparison of Thermal and DSLR models
Both sets of photogrammetric models (thermal and DSLR) reconstructed the crater and dome complex
on Volcán de Colima with varying degrees of completeness, detail and accuracy (Fig. 3). It is clear that,
in general, models constructed using the thermal images were substantially less detailed than DSLR
equivalents. This will be due to a combination of the thermal images having a lower spatial resolution
than the DSLR images and a lack of high-frequency image texture, due to low thermal contrast on the
Figure 3. Selected DSLR and thermal photogrammetric models illustrated by hillshade (top and middle),
and associated thermal orthomosaics (bottom). Grid cells are 50×50 m and oriented north-south and
east-west. The model shown in (a) was captured before lava dome growth and was used as the
reference model in volume calculations.
Nevertheless, 3D reconstruction using the thermal images was found to be far more robust to poor
photography conditions than the DSLR models. In particular, thermal models could be constructed in
situations where degassing made useful reconstruction from the DSLR images impossible. This is
because water droplets in the degassing plume cause near complete scattering of visible light (and
hence the plumes appear white), whilst the thermal infrared radiation (7.5-14 μm) is less affected (Fig.
4). Of all flights for which both thermal and DSLR data was available, ~30% of the DSLR surveys failed
to generate a model while only ~5% of the thermal models failed, even though image locations and
overlap were approximately the same. Hence, in addition to providing a useful map of estimated
temperature across the crater complex, the thermal models provide greater data continuity than the
models from the DSLR.
Figure 4. Thermal (a) and DSLR (b) images captured at approximately the same time and location
(looking towards the east), under strong degassing conditions. The dome is generally resolvable in the
thermal image, but is substantially obscured in the DSLR image. A photogrammetric model of the dome
was successfully reconstructed from the thermal images, and is of particular importance as it was
captured on 5/7/15, days before the major July 2015 eruption. A model was not attempted using the
DSLR data due to the degassing.
Shortest distance comparisons between associated DSLR and thermal models show generally good
agreement (Fig. 5a and b). As thermal models tend to be smoother than the DSLR models (Fig. 3),
differences tend to be focused around sharp topographic features such as the crater rim. However,
in a few cases, the thermal models did differ significantly from their DSLR counterparts (Table 1). The
largest dome volume difference was observed at the time when the dome area was largest (Fig. 5b),
but the second largest observed dome volume difference resulted from the thermal model locating
the dome surface ~5 m higher than the DSLR model (Fig. 5c). The reason for this difference is
unclear, but highlights our ability to identify uncertainty by comparing the different datasets. A few
of the thermal models also contained substantial error (±10 m; Fig. 5d), which was mostly apparent
in areas of low thermal contrast, where image alignments and surface reconstructions are likely to
be weakest. Although the active lava surfaces were not directly influenced by this effect, the noisy
surfaces did impair the ICP process and probably increased registration error.
Figure 5. The shortest distance between corresponding DSLR and thermal models. Regions where the
thermal model is above the DSLR model are yellow-red, while areas where the DSLR model is on top
are shaded green-blue. Histograms showing the distribution of the difference values are shown below
each map. Examples of typical models are shown in (a) and (b), with few large differences except along
sharp features (e.g. the crater rim) and towards model boundaries. Examples of models showing
greater differences are presented in (c) and (d), where reconstructed dome geometries do not match
well (c) or where substantial error is present (d).
Table 1: The five largest differences between the thermal and DSLR volume estimates. Volumes and
differences are in million m3. Percentages are relative to the DSLR volume estimate.
Using consumer cameras, and in the absence of ground control points sufficient to help constrain
photogrammetric processing, SfM-based data have been previously shown to provide topographic
data with an overall precision of ~1/1000 of the viewing distance (James and Robson, 2012). Thus,
over viewing distances of ~1-3 km, the 1-5 m differences between models are in line with this rule of
thumb. These results are reasonable given the low resolution of the thermal camera and the relatively
narrow angular field of view of both cameras (12° for the DSLR camera at full zoom and 10° for the
thermal camera), which can cause difficulties for precise photogrammetric reconstruction. It is likely
that the orbital flight paths play a strong role in helping to reduce error by naturally providing
convergent imagery, which mitigates systematic model deformation effects when ground control
points cannot be incorporated into the photogrammetric processing (Wackrow and Chandler, 2008;
James and Robson, 2014).
3.2. Dome volume calculations
Dome volumes calculated independently using the DSLR and thermal models generally correspond
well (Fig. 6), and differ by <10%. Likewise, the volume difference within the reference areas tended to
be small, averaging 5% of the dome volume estimates.
While the volcanological significance and the implications of these results for understanding the 2013
– 2015 eruption are beyond the scope of this paper, it is clear that they provide valuable information
on phases of dome growth (and volume loss) at Volcán de Colima between 2013 and 2015 (Fig. 6).
Average effusion rates could also be estimated from the rate of dome volume change, although the
effect of volume loss through explosive activity and lava flows would need to be accounted for.
Finally, where both DSLR and thermal models were successful, the two independent reconstructions
also provide a valuable indication of uncertainty in model shape. Future studies could extend this
approach and use GPS devices to “geotag” image locations at the time of capture, allowing additional
evaluation of georeferencing uncertainty as the thermal models would no longer rely on ICP
registration against a similar visible-light model for their georeferencing. For high quality camera
position data, this ‘direct georeferencing’ approach has been shown capable of delivering decametric
accuracies (Nolan et al., 2015). Alternatively, where sufficient topographic features are recognisable
in the thermal models, a single georeferenced model or high resolution digital elevation model of
known accuracy could be used for georeferencing, avoiding the need for closely associated DSLR
Figure 6. Volume of the lava dome (dotted) and lava flow top (dashed) between initiation of dome
growth in January 2013 and dome collapse in July 2015. Where both DSLR (squares) and thermal
(circles) models were available, the lines represent an average estimate. It is clear that there is
generally good agreement between volumes calculated with the DSLR and thermal models. Reference
area volumes (which would be zero under error-free conditions) are shown in grey to give an indication
of relative accuracy.
We have successfully used SfM techniques and oblique thermal images to produce a time-series of
georeferenced, three-dimensional thermal models of an active lava dome at Volcán de Colima.
Comparisons between these models and equivalents derived from DSLR images suggest that, while
less detailed, the thermal models provide a valuable representation of dome geometry. Estimates of
the lava dome volume correspond well between the DSLR and thermal datasets.
The thermal models were found to be substantially more robust to the adverse effects of degassing
and poor lighting. Because degassing is common at Volcán de Colima (as at many other volcanoes)
thermal imaging provided important data continuity at times when DSLR image quality was restricted.
Where both DSLR and thermal models were available, the thermal models provided a useful
complementary geometry estimate, helping to identify uncertainty in the models, and a
georeferenced map of temperature distribution that allows identification of thermally active regions
on the dome surface.
The combined DSLR and thermal datasets provided detailed information about the evolution of the
dome on Volcán de Colima between 2013 and 2015. It is possible that, if employed as a monitoring
technique (rather than retrospectively), the rapid change in dome volume, morphology and
temperature distribution documented by the models in the months leading up to July 2015 may have
provided prior warning of the dome collapse.
The authors would like to acknowledge the multitude of past CIIV students who participated in data
collection for this study and helped to finance flights. Some flights were financed by NERC Urgency
Grant NE/L000741/1 (PI: Paul Cole). NV was supported by Universidad de Colima FRABA grants. Paul
Cole and an anonymous reviewer are thanked for their useful feedback during the review process.
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