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A review of ground-penetrating
radar studies related to peatland
stratigraphy with a case study
on the determination of peat
thickness in a northern boreal
fen in Quebec, Canada

Progress in Physical Geography

37(6) 767786
The Author(s) 2013
Reprints and permission:
DOI: 10.1177/0309133313501106

Sandra Proulx-McInnis
INRS-ETE, Canada

Andre St-Hilaire
INRS-ETE, Canada

Alain N. Rousseau
INRS-ETE, Canada

Sylvain Jutras
Universite Laval, Canada

Ground-penetrating radar (GPR) is a non-intrusive geophysical observation method based on propagation and
reflection of high-frequency electromagnetic waves in the shallow subsurface. The vertical cross-sectional
images obtained allow the identification of thickness and lithologic horizons of different media, without
destruction. Over the last decade, several studies have demonstrated the potential of GPR. This paper presents
a review of recent GPR applications to peatlands, particularly to determine peat stratigraphy. An example study
of acquisition and comparison of peatland soil thickness of a fen-dominated watershed located in the James Bay
region of Quebec, using (1) a meter stick linked to a GPS RTK and (2) a GSSI GPR, is given. A coefficient of determination (r2) of 56% was obtained between the ordinary krigings performed on data gathered using both techniques. Disparities occurred mainly in the vicinity of ponds which can be explained by the attenuation of GPR
signal in open water. Despite these difficulties the higher time required for analysis and the error margin
it seems more appropriate to use a GPR, instead of a graduated rod linked to a GPS, to measure the peat depths
on a site like the one presented in this study. Manual measurements, which are user-dependent in the context of
variable mineral substrate densities and with the presence of obstacles in the substrate, may be more subjective.
geomorphology, geophysics, GPR, ground-penetrating radar, peatland, stratigraphy

I Introduction
The representation of shallow subsurfaces is of
interest in several geophysical sciences such

Corresponding author:
Sandra Proulx-McInnis, INRS-ETE, 490 de la Couronne,
Quebec City, Quebec G1K 9A9, Canada.

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Progress in Physical Geography 37(6)

as hydrology, geomorphology and hydrogeology. Indeed, knowledge of geological layers is

essential to locate potential drinking-water sources and other natural resources and highlight
the risk areas for construction and natural disasters, to name a few examples. Moreover, several
stratigraphic and rock studies have led to substantial discoveries about the history of the
Earth and its landforms (Neal, 2004).
Invasive techniques such as excavations are
time-consuming and expensive, provide discrete information, and often cannot be made
because study sites are protected (Neal, 2004).
In the 1970s, useful geophysical, non-invasive,
techniques such as ground-penetrating radar
(GPR, ground-probing radar, surface penetrating radar, subsurface radar, or impulse radar)
were developed to characterize type of material,
subsurface processes, internal structures and
dimensions (Annan, 2003; Neal, 2004; Van
Dam et al., 2002). Daniels (1996) and Reynolds
(1997) highlighted that pulsed electromagnetic
waves were first used in the mid-1920s. GPR,
which is a non-destructive geophysical method,
produces vertical cross-sectional images of the
shallow subsurface, based on propagation,
reflection and scattering of high-frequency electromagnetic waves within it (Benson, 1995;
Beres and Haeni, 1991; Gawthorpe et al., 1993;
Mellet, 1995). The resulting image is similar
in style to seismic reflection profiles (Davis and
Annan, 1989). The geological expertise required to interpret textural variations in radar data
often limits the application to experienced users
(Franke, 2012).
Improvement in the instrumentation and
comprehension of the effect of electrical properties on wave propagation have allowed for an
increase of the potential applications (Annan,
2003; Cassidy, 2008). Several studies have
showed the effectiveness of GPR in different
fields of applications (geomorphology, archaeology, sedimentology, hydrogeology, stratigraphy, civil engineering, etc.). Studies conducted
about the use of GPR on peatlands are not

numerous in the literature. However, such

research may be useful to evaluate water storage
in a watershed.
The objectives of this paper are: (1) to present
a review of recent ground-penetrating radar studies on peatland stratigraphy; and (2) to introduce
a case study of the use of GPR to determine the
peat soil thickness of a north boreal peatland in
Quebec (Canada).

II Recent peatlands stratigraphic

studies using ground-penetrating
radar in the literature
In the last 20 years, GPR has seen several developments and advances that have the potential to
have an impact on how GPR is used for landform studies (Worsfold et al., 1986). The use
of GPR is a good alternative to manual sampling
which has a considerable uncertainty (Doolittle
and Butnor, 2009; Rosa et al., 2009). The aim of
this section is to include recent references of the
use of GPR on peat deposit profiling. Table 1
presents ground-penetrating radar key references in geomorphology and hydrology and
examples of application for each area.
Several studies have focused on the identification of the transition between mineral and
organic soils (Dallaire and Garneau, 2008;
Doolittle and Butnor, 2009; Lowry et al.,
2009; Plado et al., 2011; Rosa et al., 2009; Sass
et al., 2010). The location of this transition is
generally useful for many environmental studies (stratigraphy, gas content, identification of
groundwater paths, age of peat, etc.) or to estimate the volume of harvestable peat. GPR is
an effective way to measure this parameter and
the success depends on the high differences in
the materials, the penetration depth and noise
that produce minor reflections (Moorman et al.,
2003). The strong electromagnetic (EM) wave
reflection results from the sharp reduction in the
volumetric moisture content between the peat
and the underlying mineral soil (Comas et al.,
2005a). Problems may arise when the contrast

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Table 1. Geomorphological and hydrological ground-penetrating radar key references.

Field of
Fluvial/Sea ice/
Freshwater ice




Slope/Alluvial fan
Faults, joints and
folds in
Flow estimation/
Water content/
Soil moisture

Key reference(s)

Example of applications

 Interpretation of structural and stratigraphic details of

a fluvial/aeolian environment
 Vibracores and GPR profiles to explain the origin of
patterns of deposition
Buynevich and
 Combination of GPR surveys and sediment cores to
Fitzgerald (2003)
examine the morphology, stratigraphy and history of
maritime ponds
Beres et al. (1999)
 Characterization of the complex heterogeneities in
glaciofluvial architecture with 2-D and 3-D GPR surveys
Hinkel et al. (2001);
 Detection of subsurface permafrost features
Moorman et al.
 Quantification of ice in the ground, the position of thermal
interfaces and spatial variations of the water content in
the active layer
Frezzotti et al. (2002)
 Combination of remote sensing and GPR surveys to
characterize a snow megadune genesis
Smith and Harry (1997);  Evaluation of the internal structure of a small river delta in
Bristow et al. (2000)
less than a day of field time
 Characterization of internal structures of coastal
Ekes and Hickin (2001)  Characterization of reflection patterns and assessment of
the methods potential for imaging alluvial fan sediments
Russell and Stasiuk
 Effectiveness of GPR to delineate major stratigraphic
contacts and to map unexposed volcanic deposits
Benson (1995);
 Discernment of the subhorizontal fractures and
Grasmueck (1996)
intersecting near-vertical fault details
 Identification of approximate boundaries of contaminant
plumes and stratigraphic information in gneiss
Butnor et al. (2003)
 Identification of root biomass in a culture forestry
experiment planted
McMechan et al. (1998);  Ability to image both large and small scale features of the
dolomites with GPR
Gloaguen et al. (2001)  Determination of spatial distribution of porosity and
hydraulic conductivity over an aquifer
Kowalsky et al. (2004,
 Proving the utility of GPR to study subsurface fluid flow
Fisher et al. (1992);
Bridge et al. (1995)

Greaves et al. (1996);

Van Overmeeren et
al. (1997)

Water table

Doolittle et al. (2006)


Porsani et al. (2006)

 Effect of multiple velocity analyses on the stacked radar

image and the demonstration of its use on the
determination of subsurface water content
 Information about the soil water content of the
unsaturated zone in sandy deposits
 Mapping of spatial and temporal variations in water-table
depths and groundwater flow patterns within an
unconfined aquifer
 Localization of fractures, exfoliation joints, massive blocks
and fresh granite identification

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Progress in Physical Geography 37(6)

between subsurface layers decreases (Munroe

et al., 2007).
In the literature, the GPR measurements are
usually collected on peatlands using systems
equipped with antennas with frequency varying
between 100 and 200 MHz (for large peat depths)
and 300400 MHz (low peat depths), which provide a good compromise between depth coverage
and resolution (Comas et al., 2005a; Kettridge
et al., 2008). The spacing between traces can
be up to 0.5 m (Comas et al., 2005a, 2005b; Kettridge et al., 2008). The sampling time window
varies in different studies between 500 and
1000 ns depending on antennae frequency and
assuming a dielectric constant (er) that is invariant with depth (Comas et al., 2005a, 2005b,
2011; De Oliveira et al., 2012). GPR surveys are
often combined with other available methods to
meet the specific aims of the studies. To help the
interpretation and to validate the data obtained
from GPR surveys, peat cores can be extracted
or manual sampling can be done along the transects collected (Kettridge et al., 2008; Plado et al.,
2011; Rosa et al., 2009).
The average wave velocity is often determined from (1) the time of propagation of the
wave out of the reflection recorded from the
peat-mineral soil contact observed in commonmidpoint surveys (CMP) or (2) the measurement of the two-way travel time at invasive
sampling locations where the peat-mineral soil
contact was precisely measured (Comas et al.,
2004, 2005a; Lapen et al., 1996; Slater and
Reeve, 2002; Theimer et al., 1994; Warner
et al., 1990). The processing steps are often
limited to application of a time-varying gain
(to equalize the amplitude of reflections with
depth), a filter (dewow or band-pass, to remove
the low-frequency noise), a static correction (to
eliminate time delay between trigger and recording) and another static correction to account for
the topography of these basin-scale surveys
(Comas et al., 2005a; Kettridge et al., 2008).
Rosa et al. (2009) showed that 30 direct core
samples are necessary to adequately calibrate

the velocity of electromagnetic waves. If this

number of measurements is performed on a given
site, the GPR proves to be a good method to estimate peat thickness, with possible adaptations
to take into consideration different geological
settings and EM wave propagation (Rosa
et al., 2009). GPR can provide a continuous
image of the peat-mineral contact and yield a
more accurate peat-volume estimate than interpolated manual measurements. Moreover, in
areas with dense wooded heath vegetation and
open pools, GPR measurements are difficult to
take, thereby creating data gaps in this transect
(Comas et al., 2005a). GPR can penetrate up
to 10 m in peat soils, with approximate 0.25 m
resolution (Comas et al., 2005b), mapping peat
thickness at a high spatial resolution (Worsfold
et al., 1986). Resolution is affected by greater
antenna frequencies and depths (Plado et al.,
The use of GPR on peatlands studies is particularly challenging. Compared to other geological media, the velocities are low (0.0330.049
m/ns) and the relative permittivities high, due to
high peat water content (Plado et al., 2011; Rosa
et al., 2009). The peat heterogeneity may induce
differences in pore-size distribution or other
physical properties (Rosa et al., 2009). For
example, clay or root layers or the varying
degree of decomposition of the peat can excessively attenuate EM wave propagation and
reduce its depth of penetration (Theimer et al.,
1994). Given that the EM velocity can vary both
vertically and laterally, the heterogeneity of
peat may lead to distortion in radar reflection
profiles (Neal, 2004).
GPR profiles, combined with coring at selected locations, are generally characterized by
the presence of areas of EM wave scattering
(loss of coherent reflectors) at shallow depths
(Comas et al., 2005b). The wave velocity
(v) shows small variations between the different
microhabitats. Drier microhabitats show higher
v values than wetter. The differences are attributed to peat porosities, biogenic gas content and

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water-table depth (Kettridge et al., 2008). Ice

and snow could have an impact on the permittivities (Plado et al., 2011). The moisturecontent changes within the peat are often
responsible for numerous strong GPR reflections. For example, lake sediments can be associated with a distinct change in physical properties
and high electric conductivity and an absence of
reflectors (Comas et al., 2005a; Plado et al.,
2011). On a GPR survey conducted on a fen,
the transition from wooded heath vegetation to
open-pool areas may lead to chaotic distortions
(Comas et al., 2005a). The conclusions of many
studies lead to the conclusion that GPR provides
additional information, but cannot serve as an
independent method (Plado et al., 2011).

III Case study: peat thickness

determination in north boreal
Quebec, Canada
Peatlands are recognized as important carbon
sinks, biodiversity-rich ecosystems, and environments with substantial water storage (Charman, 2002; Holden, 2005a, 2005b, 2005c;
Payette and Rochefort, 2001; Rydin and
Jeglum, 2006). In Quebec, they represent nearly
12% of the total land cover, and are predominantly located in the James Bay region where
they can account for 2040% of some watershed
areas (Payette and Rochefort, 2001). Observations indicate that many of the North Boreal
peatlands in Quebec are subject to aqualysis,
an enlargement and a coalescence of ponds to
the detriment of vegetative strips that collapse
and degrade (Dissanska et al., 2009; Payette,
2008; Tardif, 2010). Although they are located
upstream of large hydroelectrical power plants,
the hydrology and physiography of these ecosystems are poorly documented in the literature.
Since physiographic data are prime inputs to
hydrological modelling studies, there is a need
to develop high-resolution digital elevation
models (DEMs) to support inflow forecasting

models and improve our understanding of the

soil and surface structure of peatlands.
This paper presents the acquisition and the
comparison of peat depth using manual measurements combined with GPR profiles. The derived
data, combined with hydrometeorological data,
when incorporated into mechanistic or conceptual models will allow for a better understanding
of the hydrological behaviour of small drainage
basins dominated by highly aqualysed fens.

IV Study site
The study site is a small drainage watershed
dominated by a highly aqualysed fen (54
06868 N, 72 30083 W) located between
Hydro-Quebec LG-4 and LA-1 dams in North
Boreal Quebec (River La Grande drainage
basin). This site was chosen for its high proportion of surface water pools, small size, easily
identified outlet and ease of access (Figure 1).
The structured surface of this peatland appears
to be typical of many of those found at this
latitude. The peatland is formed by two oblong
regions (named south and north), made of
a series of ponds and strips parallel to each other
and perpendicular to the general slope (i.e. the
predominant flow direction), ultimately flowing
in a larger pond just upstream of the outlet
(Figure 1). There is a sphagnum sward in the
upstream portion of the north section, making
the latter about 1.5 times longer than the south
section. Visually, upstream and downstream
portions of the watershed have slopes much
steeper than the mid-section, where the boundaries seem visually difficult to define. The bedrock consists mainly of tonalite and gneiss.
Glacial deposits and rock outcrops form the hills
(Dissanska et al., 2007). The predominant peatland vegetation in this region consists of small
trees (Picea mariana (Mill.) BSP and Larix laricina (Du Roi) K. Koch), heaths (Kalmia polifolia Wangehn., Andromeda glaucophylla Link,
Vaccinium oxycoccos L. and Chamaedaphne
calyculata (L.) Moench) and sedges (Carex

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Figure 1. Location of the study peatland (54 06868 N, 72 30083 W).

sp., principally). We find a dominance of bryophytes on swards and a significant presence of

Sphagnum fuscum (Schimp.) and Sphagnum
rubellum Wilson on strips and hummocks. Total
precipitation in 2009 was 786 mm.

V Methodology
1 Peat depth surveys
We performed depth surveys using two methods
of measurements: (a) a meter stick (accuracy +
0.5 cm) linked to a dGPS; and (b) a GSSI GPR
a Meter stick linked to a dGPS. To obtain positions
(X,Y,Z) on the peatland, we used a dGPS (Trimble
model 5800; The fixed

GPS receiver and radio transmitter were installed

on a geodetic control mark with known coordinates. We used the geodetic control mark 89KB
053, located about 1 km away from the peatland.
To ensure proper communication with the
ratio transmitter and receiver of the mobile GPS,
the fixed GPS receiver must be configured using
a notebook (Trimble TSC2; http://www.trimble.
com). Subsequently, it can be positioned correctly. When the mobile GPS was located far
from any obstacle on XY, we used a maximum
displacement of 3 m from the radio transmitter
to get an accuracy of 1 cm or less. At lower resolution, the range can be up to several kilometers.
The accuracy in Z varies between 2 and 5 cm.
In the case of this study, we used the RTK
mode (Real Time Kinematic) to eliminate

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signal interference. This method decomposes

the mobile-receiver distance into wavelengths,
providing real-time corrections and positioning
(Bottom et al., 1997).
We sampled a total of 251 depths, with the
area stratified by pond string and even spacing
and points then selected randomly. We measured depths by pushing a 3 m graduated metal
rod down until it struck the hardened layer of
mineral soil. The sounding points were located
using a dGPS, making it possible to construct
a georeferenced database to be subsequently
analyzed using a GIS.
b GPR profiles. The GPR was composed of one
400 MHz Shielded GSSI antenna and electronic
transmitters (one enclosure contains both transmitter and receiver). This antenna system can
provide profiles between 0 and 4 m deep (Geophysical Survey System, Inc., GSSI SIR-3000
In March 2009, a total of 32 GPR transects
were acquired on site. The total length of all
transects was 7.08 km. During the survey, there
was 3050 cm of snow on the ground. The GPR
data were georeferenced using a GPS RTK (data
taken in real time, to obtain X,Y,Z coordinates).
A trench was dug on a sward of the north
section beside a GPR measurement. The trench
allowed for visual identification and measurement of the thicknesses of the different peat/soil
horizons, thus providing a validation of the GPR
signal acquired at that location. The same procedure was performed on a pond by digging a hole
and measuring the thicknesses of different layers.
In the trench on the sward strip, total depths of 70
cm of snow, 30 cm of frozen peat (ice) and 150
cm of saturated peat were measured above the
mineral soil. In the pond hole, thicknesses of
50 cm of snow, 40 cm of ice, 200 cm of water
and 10 cm of saturated peat were identified.
The interpretation of raw and unfiltered signals, at these locations, allowed for the distinction of changes in the penetration velocity of the
electromagnetic waves, corresponding to the

transitions between the different layers. The

Radan Data Analyzer v.6.5 software (Geophysical Survey System, Inc.; http://www.geophysi supplied with the GPR was used. The
following equation was used to calculate the
velocity of wave penetration (mm/ns) in the various substrates:
where v is the velocity (mm/ns), D the distance (mm) and t the time (ns). Velocities of
200 mm/ns in the snow, 150 mm/ns in the frozen
peat, 33 mm/ns in the water and 35 mm/ns in
the saturated peat were identified and used.
After this validation, GPS RTK data were
analyzed using a GIS (ArcGIS v.9.2, ESRI; to form a data line (polylines). The 32 transects were divided into 50
sections and turned into points, from which an
attribute table was generated. The GPR profiles
located closest to the points corresponding to
the meter stick surveys were selected for comparison (n 148) (Figure 2).
Each transect was inserted into the Radan Data
Analyzer v.6.5 software (Geophysical Survey
System, Inc.; The
148 profiles selected from the aforementioned
methodology were interpreted. Different filters
were tested on profiles to reduce the noise but
their application was inconclusive and, therefore,
the raw profiles were analyzed. The depths of the
lithological layers were determined with the
penetration velocities found by validation.
c Topographical survey. A total of 1416 GPS RTK
points were picked around the ponds, at the limit
between water and strip. A lot of points were
also taken randomly on the site, allowing for the
determination of the watershed limits.

2 Geostatistical interpolation
a Physical characteristics of the peatland drainage
basin. A panchromatic image acquired on

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Figure 2. Watershed land cover with location of the meter stick and GPR surveys for peat depth

08/08/2009 by GeoEye (resolution 0.50 m) was

integrated into a GIS (ArcGIS v.9.2, ESRI; The latter was georeferenced using the positions (X,Y,Z) obtained by
dGPS. This procedure helped to define the
watershed boundary of the study site.
b Interpolation and data elevation model (DEM).
The dGPS data (X,Y,Z) were converted into vector data and integrated into an ArcMap project.
Interpolation by ordinary kriging was performed (Govaerts, 1997). The kriging estimator
was a weighted average of the observed values
z(xi) used to estimate the variable identified
at a specific location x0 where there are no

measured values (equation 2):


N h

li zxi


where li are the weights of the estimator that

minimize the variance of the estimation error
(ordinary kriging weights). In ordinary kriging,
the weights are estimated under the assumption
of constant variable mean within a neighborhood and of the constraint that weights must add
up to one (Govaerts, 1997).
A Gaussian semivariogram model was applied to the anisotropic experimental semivariogram. A cross-validation was performed using
a jackknife resampling approach and the Root

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Table 2. Characteristics of ordinary kriging performances.


Surface (m)

meter stick (m)

GPR (m)

Ez from
equation (1) (cm)













Predicted errors:
Root mean square
Average standardized error
Mean standardized

Mean Square (RMS) was used to assess the

performance of the interpolated topographies
of the DEM (surface and subsurface). The calculation of RMS is performed using equation
a21 a22 ::: a2n
where a corresponds to the difference between
the measured coordinate and that produced by
the interpolation of the points, and n is the number of points.
The subsurface topography of the site was
plotted using the same process, but this time
interpolated from data acquired by the two
methods of measurements: (1) depth surveys
with a graduated meter stick; and (2) GPR transects. The depths obtained by these methods
were subtracted from the Z coordinates obtained
by dGPS. This produces a mineral base elevation relative to sea level. The difference
between Zgpr and Zms, EZ, calculated from equation (4), was also interpolated the same way:
EZ Zgpr  Zms

where every Z and EZ are in centimeters. The

latter interpolation was intended to highlight
areas where a method overestimated the depth
of peat compared the other and vice versa.
A relative bias was also calculated from

equation (5):


z Z
Sn1 gprzms ms

where n corresponds to the number of sampling

points. The kriging characteristics (semivariograms, cross-validations and predicted errors)
can be found in Table 2.
The results of kriging were cookie-cut to the
shape of the watershed and converted into
vector data. Two TINs (Triangular Irregular
Network), generated by processes of triangulation representing the relief of a medium, were
created. Five transects were drawn on TIN, each
comprising 100 surface points and depth surveys from an area that included a margin of 30
m on each side of the transect. Once these coordinates were obtained, it was possible to produce multilayered profiles.

VI Results
This section presents the quantitative physical
characteristics and the different kriging results
of the study watershed.

1 Peatland land cover

Table 3 and Figure 2 quantitatively and qualitatively describe the land cover characteristics of

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Table 3. Land cover of the study watershed.

Land cover

Area (m2)

Drainage basin percentage (%)




Area (m2)

Percentage (%)

North section
South section
Large pond



Peat soil parts

Area (m2)

Percentage (%)



Peatland divisions


the peatland watershed obtained by GPS RTK

surveying and validated by the GeoEye orthoimage. The drainage basin occupies 125,490
m2 with 71.9% forest, 19.1% peat soil and
9.0% water. The north section is the largest part
of the peatland at 49.0%, followed by the south
section at 36.8%, and finally the region of the
large pond and outlet covering 14.2%. Surface
water covers 31.0% of the peatland area. Of that
percentage, 43.0% is located in the south section
and 29.0% in the north section. The large pond
near the outlet has the same water surface area
as the north section, on a smaller area, thus making the peatland aqualysis largest downstream.

2 Surface and subsurface topographies

obtained by two measuring methods
Figure 3 shows the surface topography of the
peatland drainage basin obtained by ordinary kriging (RMS 0.28 m). The relief ranges from
439.20 m (downstream) to 448.82 m (upstream)
above sea level with an average slope of 1.77%.
The steeper areas of the watershed are located near
the outlet with slopes ranging from 5 to 6%. The
elevation of the peatland subsurface, calculated
from the data acquired by the graduated meter
stick and GPR, varies from 437.35 to 444.01 m

(average slope of 1.83%) and 438.00 to 443.13

m (average slope of 1.22%), respectively. All
slopes were calculated in the direction of the mean
flow or 135 relative to north (Figure 3).
The comparison to ordinary kriging, performed using data acquired by the GPR and
meter stick surveys, is shown in Figure 4. The
manual sampling, with 103 extra points, has
a slightly lower RMS: 0.59 m instead of 0.61 m.
Figure 5 shows the relationship between the
two methods of depth measurement. The coefficient of determination (r2) was 0.56 and in
both cases the average is 108.70 cm. On average, for peat depths between 100 and 150 cm,
both methods are equivalent. Nevertheless, the
GPR data do not exceed 210 cm. The relative
bias of GPR measures compared to meter stick
surveys is 0.26 (n 146). For values above
175 cm, the relative bias is 0.26 (n 19) and
0.34 for values below 175 cm (n 127).
Ordinary kriging was performed using the
results obtained by equation (1) (Figure 6). Three
categories were identified (EZ < 10.87 cm;
10.87 cm < EZ < 10.87 cm; EZ > 10.87 cm),
where the difference in depth EZ 10.87 cm corresponds to an error threshold of 10%. This
threshold was calculated from the average depth
of data obtained by the GPR and graduated meter

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Figure 3. Topography of the peatland watershed obtained by ordinary kriging (RMS 0.28 m). The dotted
line corresponds to the transects on which the surface slope was calculated.

stick (the average is identical in both cases). The

largest differences appear to be around the ponds.
The meter stick survey values are generally
larger than the GPR data, particularly within the
larger pond and where the north sections ponds
are situated. The two peat depth measuring methods seem similar where the peat is thin and the
slope is more abrupt.

3 Multilayered traverse profiles and

peatland DEM
Figure 7 shows five stratigraphic profiles. On
each graph, the surface and subsurface layers
calculated from GPR data and graduated meter
stick can be seen. Peat thickness seems more
important in the downstream portion of the

watershed and in the south section (generally

between 150 and 280 cm) when compared to the
upstream portion of the peatland (between 70
and 100 cm). The peat depth seems thinnest
on the swards. Comparison of depths curves
shows a high variability and few outliers (transverse transect) in the case of GPR data. In addition, this method suggests a smaller range of
values of peat depths (0210 cm). Nevertheless,
this restriction may be related to the choice of
the antenna or the device programming.

VII Discussion
GPR has proved to be a good alternative to manual sampling to estimate peak thickness (Doolittle and Butnor, 2009; Rosa et al., 2009). Section

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Figure 4. Comparison of peat depths derived using ordinary kriging of data gathered by GPR (RMS 0.61 m)
and meter stick surveys (RMS 0.59 m).

II showed that the successes of GPR surveys are

affected by the high differences in the materials
(Moorman et al., 2003). For fens such as the one
in our case study, i.e. with open pools, Comas
et al. (2005a) highlighted the fact that GPR
measurements are difficult to take during the
ice-free season and hence winter surveying is
preferable. However, Plado et al. (2011) mentioned that the GPR profiles taken in the winter
can be problematic to interpret as the snow and
ice can generate differences in permittivities.
Finally, strong EM wave reflections, resulted
by moisture and porosity changes for example,
can cause problems to identify the transition
between mineral and organic soils, which can
also lead to uncertainties (Comas et al., 2005a;
Munroe et al., 2007). On the other hand, manual
sampling can definitively help to calibrate the
velocity of electromagnetic waves (Rosa et al.,
2009) and to validate the data obtained (Kettridge et al., 2008; Plado et al., 2011; Rosa

et al., 2009). The following section will discuss

the comparison of the two measuring methods
and the peat matrix thickness spatial variation
through the ecosystem studied.

1 Comparison of the two

measurement methods
Two peat depth measurement methods were
compared in this article: acquisition of GPR
profiles and depth surveys with a graduated
meter stick.
Figures 46 show a smaller range of depth
values derived from GPR profiles (maximum
depth 210 cm). The relative bias for all sampling points (n 146) suggests that the meter
stick data overestimate thickness by 26%
relative to measures obtained by GPR. For peat
depths below 175 cm, this bias becomes greater
(34%). Above this threshold, it appears that
GPR overestimates thickness relative to a meter

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Proulx-McInnis et al.


Figure 5. Relationship between peat depths obtained by GPR and meter stick surveys (r2 0.56).

Figure 6. Spatial representation of the difference between the peat depths obtained by GPR and meter stick
surveys (10% error). Ez represents the meter stick depth subtracted from the Georadar depth, in
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Figure 7. Five peatland multilayered profiles showing the surface and subsurface topographies obtained by GPR and meter stick surveys.

Progress in Physical Geography 37(6)

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Proulx-McInnis et al.


stick by 26%. The depths obtained by both

methods are similar upstream of the north section ponds and in the sward between the two
sections and the largest pond, locations corresponding to average depths of 120 cm. In the
swards, the depths obtained by GPR seem more
important. Near ponds, the meter stick generally
gives deeper values in the north section and in
the downstream portion of the site (larger pond
area). The GPR depths are more important in the
south section.
Wave propagation through a medium depends
on the sources of attenuation encountered (Dallaire, 2010). When attenuation is high, the
signal penetration is reduced (Cassidy, 2008;
Davis and Annan, 1989). The wave frequency
and electric conductivity of a material, like a
saturated soil (peat, for example), may attenuate
the signal (Cassidy, 2008; Dallaire, 2010). This
limit may have affected our field validation.
Indeed, the interpretation of all profiles was
based on velocities (mm/ns) validated by the
observations made in the trenches. The uncertainty associated with this calculation could be
extrapolated on all data. Jol and Bristow
(2003) reported that a first interpretation of the
profiles should be made prior to visual observations in the trenches in order to preserve objectivity when interpreting.
The choice of the antenna frequency proved
adequate. Indeed, the antenna was in direct
contact with the ground and the box protected
the receiver from the solar radiation. Its range
(04 m) was appropriate for the survey. An
800 MHz antenna provided a higher resolution
but a restricted range, and vice versa for the
250 MHz antenna.
A coefficient of determination of 0.56 was
obtained between the two types of measurements. These two techniques differ greatly. The
GPR is an electromagnetic, geophysical, noninvasive technique (Bano, 2000; Gawthorpe
et al., 1993; Healy et al., 2007; Neal, 2004). Peat
depths are extracted following interpretation of
geophysical profiles. They are directly related

to the observers experience, the signals sharpness and the amount of interference encountered. In addition, the accuracy is +25 cm
depth, which is not negligible. It was more difficult to interpret the GPR signals and to extract
the depths from areas that were covered with
water, such as ponds (Dallaire, 2010). Indeed,
the signal is strongly attenuated when the water
table is near the surface (Cassidy, 2008). The
water is the medium with the largest dielectric
constant (David and Annan, 1989). The minerotrophic peatlands are more difficult to characterize than ombrotrophic peatlands, because
the number of ponds is larger (Dallaire, 2010).
Several interferences are detected at these levels
(Comas et al., 2004). Indeed, the GPR profile
nearest to the meter stick measurement was
sometimes impossible to interpret. A point
located further away had to be selected, which
may have led to greater differences in the vertical structure of the profiles that were compared.
Manual surveys are often used to validate
GPR data in the literature (e.g. r2 0.94 by
Hanninen, 1992; r2 0.89 by Holden et al.,
2002). They are also imparted with considerable
uncertainty (Doolittle and Butnor, 2009; Rosa
et al., 2009). The difference between the two
methods in this study (r2 0.56) can be
explained by numerous caveats in the field
protocol: the samplers strength may vary, the
flexibility and the possible obliquity of the graduated rod penetrating the peat layer may all be
sources of error (Jol and Smith, 1995; Worsfold
et al., 1986). The difference can also be the
result of spatial variability (distance between
comparison points up to 3 m). It may be influenced by microtopography. The rod can hit
obstacles in the peat column (branch, rock, etc.).
Authors have highlighted that the nature of the
contact between peat and mineral layers can
lead to additional uncertainty (Jol and Smith,
1995; Worsfold et al., 1986). Indeed, if the
mineral substrate beneath the peat layer is
unconsolidated, like clay or sand, the rod can
penetrate beyond the peat layer.

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Progress in Physical Geography 37(6)

The meter stick used in this study had

a length of 3 m. Nevertheless, this limit did not
affect the data, because only one measurement
reached 3 m. It is important to consider that the
GPR and the manual data were collected in
March and October, respectively. Freeze-thaw
cycles regulate partly the expansion and contraction of peat (Fritz et al., 2008). Changes of
the order of a few millimeters may be generated
between winter and spring depths.
In reviewing the performance of both methods, it seems more appropriate to use a GPR
to take depth data on fens. This instrument
constitutes an objective technique to measure
peat depths and to take large data sets in a short
period. Nevertheless, we have to consider
a margin of error associated with the interpretation of the profiles. These uncertainties could
be attenuated by the realization of electric
conductivity measurements, pH and apparent
permittivity tests (Dallaire, 2010). A larger
number of validation points, using trenches in
different places, would allow one to calculate
a propagation velocity mean in each substrate
and to verify the nature of bedrock. The use of
a graduated meter stick to do manual surveys
may in some cases be seen as suffering from
greater subjective interpretation (Jol and Smith,
1995; Worsfold et al., 1986).
According to the cross-validation statistics
presented in Table 1, the RMS data obtained
by the meter stick is slightly lower (RMS
0.59 m) than those resulting from the GPR
(RMS 0.61 m). It is, however, important to
consider the larger number of points sampled
by the meter stick. Nevertheless, the uncertainty
associated with the geostatistical interpolation
method is also important. Fitting a semivariogram manually in ArcGIS includes a certain
margin of error. Furthermore, ordinary kriging
involves a risk of errors in non-sampled areas.
It provides an accurate estimate of the measurement points, but on the other hand produces
significant discontinuities in the vicinity of
these points (Govaerts, 1997).

2 Spatial variation of the peat

matrix thickness
The thickness of the peat matrix is greater
downstream and in the south section than in the
upstream portion of the study site. It is important to consider the differences between both
methods. The peatland subsurface slope from
the meter stick surveys is more pronounced
(1.83%) than the subsurface slope determined
from GPR data (1.22%). These findings make
sense considering the greatest range of values
for the same distance.
The deepest peat areas are located in the
downstream portion of the site and at both
places where the ponds have a larger area. These
sites have the lowest topographic levels. Indeed,
the slope is less pronounced (1.061.09%). The
classic model of accumulation of peat over a
long period seems to be applicable. Filling by
lake mud, coal and ligite is a major mechanism
of peatland formation (Payette and Rochefort,
2001; Rydin and Jeglum, 2006). The stages of
peat depend on vegetation bounding, topography and drainage basin (Payette and Rochefort,
2001). In recent years this mechanism may have
been replaced by a dynamic coalescence of
ponds that may evolve towards shallow lakes.
This hypothesis should be verified by paleoenvironmental reconstructions methods, such
as palynological studies (e.g. Payette and
Rochefort, 2001).
Another question can be raised from the difference in thickness between the north and south
sections. An elevation formed by rocks and hummocks is located between the two sections that
may be the remnant of a boundary between what
used to be two independent peatlands, which have
grown and merged with time. A large sphagnum
sward forms half of the north section (from
upstream to downstream), and the peat thickness
is shallower there. This pattern could be the result
of a paludification process in which peatland
extends laterally following a change in water
regime (e.g. Payette and Rochefort, 2001), the

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Proulx-McInnis et al.


peat matrix here gradually invading the forest

edge of the upstream site.

VIII Conclusion
At the beginning of this study, two basic questions were raised. (1) Do methodologies used
to collect GPR data on peaty soils to characterize the stratigraphy yield similar results?
(2) More specifically, is there a significant difference between peat depth measurement using
a GPR and a manually driven meter stick?
In the literature, the number of papers reporting the use of GPR on peatlands has greatly
increased. GPR can penetrate up to 10 m
(+0.25 m) in peat soils (Comas et al., 2005b),
allowing the possible creation of high spatial
resolution maps (Worsfold et al., 1986). However, GPR surveys are challenging on peatlands
as there are numerous areas conducive to EM
wave scattering (Comas et al., 2005b). Indeed,
the moisture content fluctuations within the
media, the porosity differences, the water-table
depth, the biogenic gas content, and the presence of root or clay layers could be responsible
for numerous strong GPR reflections (Comas
et al., 2005a; Plado et al., 2011). Many authors
have highlighted the fact that to obtain a good
modeling of an environment, with peatlands as
an example, GPR data have to be combined with
other methods to fill in the gaps, to validate the
data (Comas et al., 2005a; Neal, 2004; Plado
et al., 2011) and to reduce the uncertainties
associated with interpolation (Rosa et al., 2009).
The two techniques examined for measuring
peat depth have a coefficient of determination
(r2) of 56%. Disparities between the two methods occurred mainly in the vicinity of ponds,
this observation may be caused by the difficulty
of interpreting the GPR profiles taken over
water. Indeed, the signal is attenuated when the
water table is near the surface (Cassidy, 2008),
due to its high dielectric constant (Davis
and Annan, 1989). However, it seems more
appropriate to use a GPR to take peat depth

measurements on a site like the one introduced

in this study. This technique allowed for the
gathering of an important number of profiles
in a short period. Nevertheless, the interpretation time and the error margin must be considered. The use of a graduated rod in the context
of variable mineral substrate densities and with
the presence of obstacles such as woody debris
within the peat layer may be more subjective
(Jol and Smith, 1995; Worsfold et al., 1986).
Multilayered transects showed that the lowest
points of the study site are those with the greatest thicknesses of peat. These locations also correspond to those located near the largest pools,
indicating that the likely mechanism of peat
accumulation in the past may have been lake
infilling. This assumption could possibly be
validated by paleo-ecological studies. These
data, in addition to future stratigraphical, ecological and paleo-ecological studies, will serve as
the basis of a conceptual physiographic model
to be used in a hydrological model, allowing for
the advancement of knowledge on the small
watersheds dominated by minerotrophic fen
ecosystems and further understanding of hydrological processes in the middle boreal north of
We would like to thank Serge Payette (Universite
Laval), principal investigator of the CRD-NSERC
grant (Ecohydrology of minerotrophic peatland of
the La Grande River Watershed, Northern Quebec:
water cycle, CO2 and CH4 monitoring), as well as the
remote sensing team of Monique Bernier and Karem
Chokmani of the Institut National de la Recherche
Scientifique, Eau Terre Environnement (INRSETE). We are grateful to the anonymous reviewers
who provided detailed comments and suggestions
which improved this article.

This research was financially supported by the
Collaborative Research and Development (CRD) program of the Natural Science and Engineering Research

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Progress in Physical Geography 37(6)

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