Temporal variations in river water surface elevation and slope captured by AirSWOT

Elizabeth H. Altenau*, Tamlin M. Pavelsky, Delwyn Moller, Lincoln H. Pitcher, Paul D. Bates, Michael T. Durand, Laurence C. Smith

*Corresponding author for this work

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

11 Citations (Scopus)
54 Downloads (Pure)


The Surface Water and Ocean Topography (SWOT) satellite mission aims to improve the frequency and accuracy of global observations of river water surface elevations (WSEs) and slopes. As part of the SWOT mission, an airborne analog, AirSWOT, provides spatially29 distributed measurements of WSEs for river reaches tens to hundreds of kilometers in length. For the first time, we demonstrate the ability of AirSWOT to consistently measure temporal dynamics in river WSE and slope. We evaluate data from six AirSWOT flights conducted 32 between June 7-22, 2015 along a ~90 km reach of the Tanana River, AK. To validate AirSWOT measurements, we compare AirSWOT WSEs and slopes against an in situ network of 12 pressure transducers (PTs). Assuming error-free in situ data, AirSWOT measurements of river WSEs have an overall root mean square difference (RMSD) of 11.8 cm when averaged over 1 km2 areas whilst measurements of river surface slope have an RMSD of 1.6 cm/km for reach lengths >5 km. AirSWOT is also capable of recording accurate river WSE changes between flight dates, with an RMSD of 9.8 cm. Regrettably, observed in situ slope changes that transpired between the six flights are well below AirSWOT’s accuracy, limiting the evaluation of AirSWOT’s ability to capture temporal changes in slope. In addition to validating the direct AirSWOT measurements, we compare discharge values calculated via Manning’s equation using AirSWOT WSEs and slopes to discharge values calculated using PT WSEs and slopes. We define or calibrate the remaining discharge parameters using a combination of in situ and remotely sensed observations, and we hold these remaining parameters constant between the two types of calculations to evaluate the impact of using AirSWOT versus the PT observations of WSE and slope. Results indicate that AirSWOT-derived discharge estimates are similar to the PT-derived discharge estimates, with an RMSD of 13.8%. Additionally, 42% of the AirSWOT-based discharge estimates fall within the PT discharge estimates’ uncertainty bounds. We conclude that AirSWOT can measure multitemporal variations in river WSE and spatial variations in slope with both high accuracy and spatial sampling, providing a compelling alternative to in situ measurements of regional-scale, spatiotemporal fluvial dynamics.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)304-316
Number of pages13
JournalRemote Sensing of Environment
Early online date22 Feb 2019
Publication statusPublished - 1 Apr 2019


  • Surface Water and Ocean Topography (SWOT)
  • AirSWOT
  • Remote sensing
  • Tanana River
  • Multichannel rivers
  • Arctic hydrology

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