Improving the TanDEM-X Digital Elevation Model for flood modelling using flood extents from Synthetic Aperture Radar images

David C. Mason*, Mark Trigg, Javier Garcia-Pintado, Hannah L. Cloke, Jeffrey C. Neal, Paul D. Bates

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review

34 Citations (Scopus)
366 Downloads (Pure)


The topography of many floodplains in the developed world has now been surveyed with high resolution sensors such as airborne LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging), giving accurate Digital Elevation Models (DEMs) that facilitate accurate flood inundation modelling. This is not always the case for remote rivers in developing countries. However, the accuracy of DEMs produced for modelling studies on such rivers should be enhanced in the near future by the high resolution TanDEM-X WorldDEM.In a parallel development, increasing use is now being made of flood extents derived from high resolution Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) images for calibrating, validating and assimilating observations into flood inundation models in order to improve these. This paper discusses an additional use of SAR flood extents, namely to improve the accuracy of the TanDEM-X DEM in the floodplain covered by the flood extents, thereby permanently improving this DEM for future flood modelling and other studies.The method is based on the fact that for larger rivers the water elevation generally changes only slowly along a reach, so that the boundary of the flood extent (the waterline) can be regarded locally as a quasi-contour. As a result, heights of adjacent pixels along a small section of waterline can be regarded as samples with a common population mean. The height of the central pixel in the section can be replaced with the average of these heights, leading to a more accurate estimate. While this will result in a reduction in the height errors along a waterline, the waterline is a linear feature in a two-dimensional space. However, improvements to the DEM heights between adjacent pairs of waterlines can also be made, because DEM heights enclosed by the higher waterline of a pair must be at least no higher than the corrected heights along the higher waterline, whereas DEM heights not enclosed by the lower waterline must in general be no lower than the corrected heights along the lower waterline. In addition, DEM heights between the higher and lower waterlines can also be assigned smaller errors because of the reduced errors on the corrected waterline heights.The method was tested on a section of the TanDEM-X Intermediate DEM (IDEM) covering an 11. km reach of the Warwickshire Avon, England. Flood extents from four COSMO-SKyMed images were available at various stages of a flood in November 2012, and a LiDAR DEM was available for validation. In the area covered by the flood extents, the original IDEM heights had a mean difference from the corresponding LiDAR heights of 0.5. m with a standard deviation of 2.0. m, while the corrected heights had a mean difference of 0.3. m with standard deviation 1.2. m. These figures show that significant reductions in IDEM height bias and error can be made using the method, with the corrected error being only 60% of the original. Even if only a single SAR image obtained near the peak of the flood was used, the corrected error was only 66% of the original. The method should also be capable of improving the final TanDEM-X DEM and other DEMs, and may also be of use with data from the SWOT (Surface Water and Ocean Topography) satellite.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)15-28
Number of pages14
JournalRemote Sensing of Environment
Early online date5 Dec 2015
Publication statusPublished - 1 Feb 2016


  • Digital Terrain Model
  • Flood extent
  • Flood modelling
  • Synthetic Aperture Radar
  • TanDEM-X

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