What Limits an Altimeter’s Resolution of Along-Track Geoid Slope? Insights from Saral and Cryosat

Wednesday, 17 December 2014: 10:35 AM
Walter H F Smith, NOAA Lab Satellite Altimetry, College Park, MD, United States
Satellite altimeter data collected along densely spaced ground tracks can map the marine gravity field, revealing the tectonic fabric of the sea floor. This application requires high accuracy of the along-track derivative of sea surface height over distances shorter than 80 km, and so is very sensitive to the instrument’s range precision and any factors that produce short-scale along-track correlation of range measurement errors. To date the altimeters that have collected data over a dense network of ground tracks all acquired their largest data sets in Ku band and employing conventional (incoherent) processing.

Two new altimeters go beyond conventional Ku instruments. SARAL AltiKa operates as an incoherent altimeter at Ka-band, and CryoSat collects some Ku-band data in a SAR mode to permit coherent processing for aperture synthesis and delay-Doppler calculations. The along-track range noise correlation characteristics of each of these new measurements are different from what has been seen in previous altimeters.

SARAL AltiKa has a lower noise floor than pre-Cryosat Ku-band instruments and its noise spectrum shows decorrelation at different wavelengths, in partial agreement with theoretical work on speckle noise decorrelation over homogeneous surfaces. This improved noise performance results in demonstrable improvement in the resolution of geoid anomalies over small seamounts.

Retracking of Cryosat’s SAR mode multi-looked waveform yields a decorrelation of range errors unlike that found in conventional instruments, such that it doesn’t require two-pass retracking to get the best geoid slope resolution. This is due mainly to the waveform’s shape, which yields partial derivatives with respect to geophysical parameter estimates that are more nearly orthogonal than in conventional Ku-band Brown model waveforms.

Further understanding of the limits on range precision in these instruments will require understanding of the heterogeneities in reflecting surfaces that are not yet accounted for in standard retracking methods, how these heterogeneities produce errors in range, and how these errors are serially correlated along-track. Some insight may be had by comparing measurements over ocean surfaces with measurements over heterogeneous scenes on land and in coastal zones or leads in sea ice.