While airborne lidar data have revolutionized the spatial resolution that elevations can be realized, data limitations are often magnified in coastal settings. Researchers have found that airborne lidar can have a vertical error as high as 60 cm in densely vegetated intertidal areas. The uncertainty of digital elevation models is often left unaddressed; however, in low-relief environments, such as barrier islands, centimeter differences in elevation can affect exposure to physically demanding abiotic conditions, which greatly influence ecosystem structure and function. In this study, we used airborne lidar elevation data, in situ elevation observations, lidar metadata, and tide gauge information to delineate low-lying lands and the intertidal wetlands on Dauphin Island, a barrier island along the coast of Alabama, USA. We compared three different elevation error treatments, which included leaving error untreated and treatments that used Monte Carlo simulations to incorporate elevation vertical uncertainty using general information from lidar metadata and site-specific Real-Time Kinematic Global Position System data, respectively. To aid researchers in instances where limited information is available for error propagation, we conducted a sensitivity test to assess the effect of minor changes to error and bias. Treatment of error with site-specific observations produced the fewest omission errors, although the treatment using the lidar metadata had the most well-balanced results. The percent coverage of intertidal wetlands was increased by up to 80% when treating the vertical error of the digital elevation models. Based on the results from the sensitivity analysis, it could be reasonable to use error and positive bias values from literature for similar environments, conditions, and lidar acquisition characteristics in the event that collection of site-specific data is not feasible and information in the lidar metadata is insufficient. The methodology presented in this study should increase efficiency and enhance results for habitat mapping and analyses in dynamic, low-relief coastal environments.
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