Accurate three-dimensional information on canopy structure contributes to better understanding of radiation fluxes within the canopy and the physiological processes associated with them. Small-footprint airborne laser scanning (ALS) data proved valuable for characterising the three-dimensional structure of forest canopies and the retrieval of biophysical parameters such as plant and leaf area index (PAI and LAI), fractional cover or canopy layering. Nevertheless, few studies analysed combined occluded and observed canopy elements in dense vegetation as a result of airborne laser scanning geometries. The occluded space contains a substantial amount of vegetation elements (i.e. leaf, needle and wood material), which are missing in the analysis of the three-dimensional canopy structure. Consequently, this will lead to erroneous retrieval of biophysical parameters. In this study, we introduce a voxel traversal algorithm to characterize ALS observation patterns inside a voxel grid. We analyse the dependence of occluded and unobserved canopy volume on pulse density, flight strip overlap and season of overflight in a temperate mixed forest. ALS measurements under leaf-on and leaf-off conditions were used. For cross-comparison purposes, terrestrial laser scanning (TLS) measurements on a 50×50 m2 subplot under leaf-on conditions were used. TLS acquisitions were able to depict the three-dimensional structure of the forest plot in high detail, ranging up
to the top-most canopy layer. Our results at 1 m voxel size show that even with the highest average pulse density of 11 pulses/m2, at least 25% of the forest canopy volume remains occluded in the ALS acquisition under leaf-on conditions. Comparison with TLS acquisitions further showed that roughly 28% of the vegetation elements detected by the TLS acquisitions were not detected by the ALS system due to occlusion effects. By combining leaf-on and leaf-off acquisitions, we were able to recover roughly 7% of the occluded vegetation elements from the leaf-on acquisition. We find that larger flight strip overlap can significantly increase the amount of observed canopy volume due to the added observation angles and increased pulse density.