Numerical model results suggest that a relationship exists between river discharge and surface height anomalies near the mouth of rivers, which presents an opportunity to use satellite elevation data to measure discharge remotely. Here we investigate whether such a relationship can be observed in the field using airborne lidar data at the mouth of the Columbia River. Airborne Lidar data were used because current NASA altimeter data does not have high enough spatial resolution to image surface elevation along a river. NASA’s Surface Water and Ocean Topography, SWOT, sensor is planned to have a spatial resolution of less than 100 m and maximum height precision of 1 cm. The magnitude and temporal duration of the elevation signal found in the lidar data will be used to determine if SWOT will have the resolution and precision capabilities to measure discharge from space.
Lidar data were acquired during a range of tidal conditions and discharge rates from May through September of 2013. Our results suggest that there is a measurable surface height anomaly at the river mouth during part of the tidal cycle. A 0.7 m surface depression was found during ebb tide and a uniform surface tilt was found at slack tide. The variation of the anomaly over the tidal period presents a challenge for decoupling the tidal component from that due to the discharge.