Sea ice roughness overlooked as a key source of uncertainty in CryoSat-2 ice freeboard retrievals

Jack C Landy, Alek Petty, Michel Tsamados, Julienne C. Stroeve

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

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ESA’s CryoSat-2 has transformed the way we monitor Arctic sea ice, providing routine measurements of the ice thickness with near basin-wide coverage. Past studies have shown that uncertainties in the sea ice thickness retrievals can be introduced at several steps of the processing chain, for instance in the estimation of snow depth, and snow and sea ice densities. Here, we apply a new physical model to CryoSat-2 which further reveals sea ice surface roughness as a key overlooked feature of the conventional retrieval process. High-resolution airborne observations demonstrate that snow and sea ice surface topography can be better characterized by a Lognormal distribution, which varies based on the ice age and surface roughness within a CryoSat-2 footprint, than a Gaussian distribution. Based on these observations, we perform a set of simulations for the CryoSat-2 echo waveform over ‘virtual’ sea ice surfaces with a range of roughness and radar backscattering configurations. By accounting for the variable roughness, our new Lognormal retracker produces sea ice freeboards which compare well with those derived from NASA’s Operation IceBridge airborne data and extends the capability of CryoSat-2 to profile the thinnest/smoothest sea ice and thickest/roughest ice. Our results indicate that the variable ice surface roughness contributes a systematic uncertainty in sea ice thickness of up to 20% over first-year ice and 30% over multi-year ice, representing one of the principal sources of pan-Arctic sea ice thickness uncertainty.
Original languageEnglish
Article numbere2019JC015820
Number of pages18
JournalJournal of Geophysical Research: Oceans
Issue number5
Early online date20 Apr 2020
Publication statusPublished - 19 May 2020


  • Arctic
  • sea ice
  • CryoSat-2
  • Roughness
  • Ice Freeboard
  • Numerical modelling


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