Accurately mapping the boundary between land and water (the ‘waterline’) is critical for tracking change in vulnerable coastal zones, and managing increasingly threatened water resources. Previous studies have largely relied on mapping waterlines at the pixel scale, or employed computationally intensive sub-pixel waterline extraction methods that are impractical to implement at scale. There is a pressing need for operational methods for extracting information from freely available medium resolution satellite imagery at spatial scales relevant to coastal and environmental management. In this study, we present a comprehensive evaluation of a promising method for mapping waterlines at sub-pixel accuracy from satellite remote sensing data. By combining a synthetic landscape approach with high resolution WorldView-2 satellite imagery, it was possible to rapidly assess the performance of the method across multiple coastal environments with contrasting spectral characteristics (sandy beaches, artificial shorelines, rocky shorelines, wetland vegetation and tidal mudflats), and under a range of water indices (Normalised Difference Water Index, Modified Normalised Difference Water Index, and the Automated Water Extraction Index) and thresholding approaches (optimal, zero and automated Otsu’s method). The sub-pixel extraction method shows a strong ability to reproduce both absolute waterline positions and relative shape at a resolution that far exceeds that of traditional whole-pixel methods, particularly in environments without extreme contrast between the water and land (e.g., accuracies of up to 1.50–3.28 m at 30 m Landsat resolution using optimal water index thresholds). We discuss key challenges and limitations associated with selecting appropriate water indices and thresholds for sub-pixel waterline extraction, and suggest future directions for improving the accuracy and reliability of extracted waterlines. The sub-pixel waterline extraction method has a low computational overhead and is made available as an open-source tool, making it suitable for operational continental-scale or full time-depth analyses aimed at accurately mapping and monitoring dynamic waterlines through time and space.
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