Maximum flood extent—a key data need for disaster response and mitigation—is rarely quantified due to storm-related cloud cover and the low temporal resolution of optical sensors. While change detection approaches can circumvent these issues through the identification of inundated land and soil from post-flood imagery, their accuracy can suffer in the narrow and complex channels of increasingly developed and heterogeneous floodplains. This study explored the utility of the Operational Land Imager (OLI) and Independent Component Analysis (ICA) for addressing these challenges in the unprecedented 2013 Flood along the Colorado Front Range, USA. Pre- and post-flood images were composited and transformed with an ICA to identify change classes. Flooded pixels were extracted using image segmentation, and the resulting flood layer was refined with cloud and irrigated agricultural masks derived from the ICA. Visual assessment against aerial orthophotography showed close agreement with high water marks and scoured riverbanks, and a pixel-to-pixel validation with WorldView-2 imagery captured near peak flow yielded an overall accuracy of 87% and Kappa of 0.73. Additional tests showed a twofold increase in flood class accuracy over the commonly used modified normalized water index. The approach was able to simultaneously distinguish flood-related water and soil moisture from pre-existing water bodies and other spectrally similar classes within the narrow and braided channels of the study site. This was accomplished without the use of post-processing smoothing operations, enabling the important preservation of nuanced inundation patterns. Although flooding beneath moderate and sparse riparian vegetation canopy was captured, dense vegetation cover and paved regions of the floodplain were main sources of omission error, and commission errors occurred primarily in pixels of mixed land use and along the flood edge. Nevertheless, the unsupervised nature of ICA, in conjunction with the global availability of Landsat imagery, offers a straightforward, robust, and flexible approach to flood mapping that requires no ancillary data for rapid implementation. Finally, the spatial layer of flood extent and a summary of impacts were provided for use in the region’s ongoing hydrologic research and mitigation planning.
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