In continuous cover forest systems, canopy gaps are created by management activities with an aim of encouraging natural regeneration and of increasing structural heterogeneity. Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) may provide a more accurate means to assess gap distribution than ground survey, allowing more effective monitoring. This paper presents a new approach to gap delineation, based on identifying gaps directly from the point cloud and avoiding the need for interpolation of returns to a canopy height model (CHM). Areas of canopy are identified through local maxima identification, filtering and clustering of the point cloud, with gaps subsequently delineated in a GIS environment.
When compared to field surveyed gap outlines, the algorithm has an overall accuracy of 88% for data with a high LiDAR point density (11.4 returns per m(2)) and accuracy of up to 77% for lower density data (1.2 returns per m(2)). The method provides an increase in overall and Producer's accuracy of 4 and 8% respectively, over a method based on the use of a CHM. The estimation of total gap area is improved by, on average, 16% over the CHM based approach. Results indicate that LiDAR data can be used accurately to delineate gaps in managed forests, potentially allowing more accurate and spatially explicit modelling of understorey light conditions.