The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Foreign Agricultural Service (USDA-FAS),
in co-operation with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and the
University of Maryland, are routinely monitoring lake and reservoir height variations
for many large lakes around the world. The program utilizes NASA/CNES/ESA/ISRO radar
altimeter data over inland water bodies in an operational manner. The surface elevation
products are produced via a semi-automated process and placed at this web site for USDA
and public viewing. Monitoring height variations will greatly assist the USDA/FAS Office
of Global Analysis to quickly locate regional droughts, as well as improve crop production
estimates for irrigated regions located downstream from lakes and reservoirs.
All targeted lakes and reservoirs are located within major agricultural regions.
Reservoir and Lake height variations may be viewed in graphical and text format by placing
the cursor on and clicking the continent and lake of interest.
Semi-Automated Data Processing
The project utilizes near-real time radar altimeter data from the Poseidon-3 instrument
on-board the Jason-2 (or OSTM) satellite which was launched in June, 2008. In addition, data
from the Jason-1 mission (2002-2008) and an historical data archive from the TOPEX/POSEIDON
mission (1992-2002) are also used. Data processing procedures closely follow methods developed
by the NASA Ocean Altimeter Pathfinder Project (see references). When fully operational,
updated products are delivered within 7-10 days after satellite overpass. The resulting
time series of height variations are expected to be accurate to better than 10cm rms for
the largest (and more open) bodies of water such as The Great Lakes, USA, Lakes Victoria
and Tanganyika in Africa etc. Smaller lakes or those that experience more sheltered (from wind)
conditions can expect to have accuracy's better than 20cm rms (e.g. Lake Chad, Africa).
Satellite passes that cross over narrow reservoir extents in severe terrain will push the
limits of the instruments with resulting rms values of many tens of centimeters. Despite
limitations, satellite radar altimeters can potentially monitor the variation of surface
water height for many large inland water bodies including lake, reservoir, wetland region
and river channel. Full details and references can be found by clicking the associated
links in the left-hand frame.
|Satellite Radar Altimetry
In General: A satellite radar altimeter is not an imaging device, but a nadir-pointing
instrument continuously recording average surface `spot' heights directly below the satellite,
as it transverses over the Earth's surface. Operating at ~13.6GHz, each altimeter emits a
series of microwave pulses towards the surface. By noting the two-way time delay between
pulse emission and echo reception, the surface height can be deduced. Each returned height
value is an average of all surface heights found within the footprint of the altimeter. The
diameter of the footprint depends on the surface roughness, but can typically range between
200m (for open pools of water in calm conditions) to a few kilometers (open water with surface
waves). Each satellite is placed in a specific repeat orbit, so after a certain number of
days the same point (to within 1km), on the Earth's surface is revisited. In this way, time
series of surface height changes can be constructed for a particular location along the
satellite ground track during the lifetime of the mission.
There have been a number of altimetric satellite missions to date and follow-on missions can be expected (see Figure and Table below).
||2002 - Early 2012
||End of 2015
||2008 - End of 2015
||Mid 2015 -
Although their primary objectives are ocean and ice studies, altimeters
have had considerable success in the monitoring of inland water bodies. In
particular, the ability to remotely detect water surface level changes in
lakes and inland seas has been demonstrated. Unhindered by time of day,
weather, vegetation or canopy cover, the technique has further been applied
to a number of rivers, wetlands and floodplains in several test-case studies.
In particular, the results demonstrate how submonthly, seasonal, and
interannual variations in height can be monitored.
For full details on Satellite Radar Altimetry and the application to inland water see the References section.
|Advantages and Limitations of Satellite Radar Altimetry
and all weather operation.
- Generally unhindered
by vegetation or canopy cover.
- All determined
surface heights are with respect to one common reference frame.
- Satellites are
placed in repeat orbits (up to 1km either side of a nominal ground
track) enabling systematic monitoring of rivers, lakes, wetlands,
inland seas and floodplains.
- Has the potential
to contribute height information for any target beneath the satellite
overpass, thus contributing information where traditional gauge (stage)
data may be absent.
- Satellite altimetric
instruments have been in continuous operation since 1991 and new missions
are scheduled for the next decade. There is therefore the ability
to monitor seasonal to interannual variations during the lifetime
of these satellites.
- Techniques have
been validated and results published in peer-reviewed journals.
instruments are primarily designed to operate over uniform surfaces
such as oceans and ice-sheets. Highly undulating or complex topography
may cause data loss or non-interpretation of data.
Retrieved heights are an "average" of all topography within
the instrument footprint. Such values are further averaged in the
direction of the satellite motion, giving, for example, one final
height value every 580m (TOPEX/POSEIDON) or 350m (ERS) along the ground
track. Altimetric values therefore differ from traditional gauge measurements
which offer "spot" heights at specific locations.
The height accuracy is dominated by knowledge of the satellite orbit,
the altimetric range (distance between antenna and target), the geophysical
range corrections and the size and type of the target.
Unlike imaging instruments, altimeters only retrieve heights along
a narrow swath determined by the instrument's footprint size. The
effective footprint diameter can vary depending on the nature of the
target, and can potentially range from several hundred meters to many
Minimum target size is controlled by the instrument footprint size
and the telemetry/data rates, and also on the surrounding topography
and the target-tracking method used.
The satellite orbit scenario and target size also determine the spatial
and temporal coverage. Improved temporal coverage is gained at the
expense of spatial coverage for a single satellite mission.
Major wind events, heavy precipitation, tidal effects and the presence
of ice will effect data quality and accuracy.
Several altimetric datasets are currently being exploited: 1) The Topex/Jason series in a 10-day repeat orbit and with global coverage extending to North/South latitude 66 degrees). This comprises T/P (1992-2002), Jason-1 (2002-2008), and Jason-2 (2008 to present day) and a mix of both IGDR and GDR data sets. 2) NRL Geosat Follow On mission (or GFO) data, with a 17-day resolution and extending to North/South latitude 72 degrees, this data was used as an occasional substitute for missing Jason-1 data. 3) ESA/ENVISAT data with a 35-day resolution and extending to North/South latitude 81 degrees. Currently Jason-2/OSTM IGDR data are being used for near real time operational monitoring.
Additional information on the Jason-2/OSTM mission can be found at:
The aim of this web site is to provide time-series of water level variations
for some of the world's largest lakes and reservoirs. Currently, large
(>100 km²) lakes in important agricultural regions are the main
The main database products are graphs and associated information in
tabular form. For the Graphs, changes in water level are real but the
y-scale is arbitrary (relative) and given in meters. The x-axis refers
to time with intervals of several months. The blue symbol represents results
from the Topex/Poseidon satellite (the NASA-ALT and SSALT/Poseidon-1 altimeters),
the red symbol denotes results from the Jason-1 mission (the Poseidon-2 altimeter),
the purple symbol denotes the OSTM or Jason-2 mission (the Poseidon-3 altimeter).
Additional graphs may also depict results (green symbol) from the GFO mission.
The Results Table gives heights, associated errors and date/time of the observation. Note
that a geographical extent across the lake has been used to derive the
time series - rather than a spot measurement which is more typical of
a traditional gauge. A discussion on altimetric height accuracy can
be found in the Accuracy+Validation section.
|For more information contact:
Dr. Charon Birkett
University of Maryland
College Park, USA
Tel: (301) 405 9296
Fax: (301) 405 8468
Dr. Curt Reynolds
1400 Independence Ave, SW
South Building Stop 1051, Room 4649,
Washington, DC 20250
These lake products exist in the public domain and their creation was funded as part of the USDA/FAS/OGA
and NASA Global Agriculture Monitoring (GLAM)
Project and the NASA/Applied Sciences/Water Resources Program. The following general acknowledgement of this database should be made if the information presented here is used in publications for further scientific purposes and/or additional applications:
Users of these datasets must carefully note the information given in
and Advantages and Limitations
This is an on-going project with elements that reside in the research domain. We therefore
reserve the right to state the following liability disclaimer:
The USDA/NASA/UMD/SGT Project Investigators accept no responsibility for the accuracy and
application of the lake level products held in this database.