Airborne Laser Scanning (ALS) measurements are increasingly vital in forest management and national forest inventories. Despite the growing reliance on ALS data, comparatively little research has examined the sensitivity of ALS measurements to varying survey conditions over commercially important forests. This study investigated: (i) how accurately the Discrete Anisotropic Radiative Transfer (DART) model was able to replicate small-footprint ALS measurements collected over Irish conifer plantations, and (ii) how survey characteristics influenced the precision of discrete-return metrics. A variance-based global sensitivity analysis demonstrated that discrete-return height distributions were accurately and consistently simulated across 100 forest inventory plots with few perturbations induced by varying acquisition parameters or ground topography. In contrast, discrete return density, canopy cover and the proportion of multiple returns were sensitive to fluctuations in sensor altitude, scanning angle, pulse repetition frequency and pulse duration. Our findings corroborate previous studies indicating that discrete-return heights are robust to varying acquisition parameters and may be reliable predictors for the indirect retrieval of forest inventory measurements. However, canopy cover and density metrics are only comparable for ALS data collected under similar acquisition conditions, precluding their universal use across different ALS surveys. Our study demonstrates that DART is a robust model for simulating discrete-return measurements over structurally complex forests; however, the replication of foliage morphology, density and orientation are important considerations for radiative transfer simulations using synthetic trees with explicitly defined crown architectures.
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