EGU General Assembly 2020
© Author(s) 2021. This work is distributed under
the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.

Retrieving, validating, and assimilating fractional snow-covered area from emerging optical satellites for snow reanalysis

Kristoffer Aalstad1, Sebastian Westermann1, Joel Fiddes2, James McCreight3, and Laurent Bertino4
Kristoffer Aalstad et al.
  • 1University of Oslo, Section for Geography and Hydrology, Department of Geosciences, Oslo, Norway (
  • 2WSL Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research SLF, Davos, Switzerland
  • 3National Center for Atmospheric Research, Boulder, Colorado, USA
  • 4Nansen Environmental and Remote Sensing Center, Bergen, Norway

Accurately estimating the snow water equivalent (SWE) that is stored in the worlds mountains remains a challenging and important unsolved problem. The SWE reconstruction approach, where the remotely sensed seasonal depletion of fractional snow-covered area (fSCA) is used with a snow model to build up the snowpack in reverse, has been used for decades to help tackle this problem retrospectively. Despite some success, this deterministic approach ignores uncertainties in the snow model, the meteorological forcing, and the remotely sensed fSCA. A trade-off has also existed between the desired temporal and spatial resolution of the satellite-retrieved fSCA depletion. Recently, ensemble-based data assimilation techniques that can account for the uncertainties inherent in the reconstruction exercise have allowed for probabilistic snow reanalyses. In addition, new higher resolution optical satellite constellations such as Sentinel-2 and the PlanetScope cubesats have been launched into polar orbit, potentially eliminating the aforementioned trade-off.

We combine these two developments, namely ensemble-based data assimilation and the emerging remotely sensed data streams, to see if snow reanalyses can be improved at the hillslope (100 m) scale in complex terrain. As a first step, we develop accurate high-resolution binary snow-cover maps using a terrestrial automatic camera system installed on a mountaintop near Ny-Ålesund (Svalbard, Norway). These maps are used to validate fSCA retrieved from various satellite sensors (MODIS, Sentinel-2 MSI, and Landsat 8 OLI) using algorithms ranging from simple thresholding of the normalized difference snow index to spectral unmixing. Through the validation, we demonstrate that the spectral unmixing technique can obtain unbiased fSCA retrievals at the hillslope scale. Next, we move to the Mammoth Lakes basin in the Californian Sierra Nevada, USA, where we have access to independent validation data retrieved from several Airborne Snow Observatory (ASO) and Airborne Visible/Infrared Imaging Spectrometer (AVIRIS) flights. Using these airborne retrievals as a reference, we show that fSCA can be retrieved at the hillslope scale with reasonable accuracy at an unprecedented near daily revisit period using a combination of the Landsat, Sentinel-2 MSI, RapidEye, and PlanetScope satellite constellations. In a series of data assimilation experiments we show how the combination of these constellations can lead to significant improvements in hillslope scale snow reanalyses as gauged by various evaluation metrics. Furthermore, it is suggested that an iterative ensemble smoother data assimilation scheme can provide more robust SWE estimates than other smoothers that have previously been proposed for snow reanalysis. We briefly conclude with thoughts as to the current impediments to conducting a global hillslope scale snow reanalysis and propose avenues for further research, such as how snow reanalyses can help in the prediction exercise.

How to cite: Aalstad, K., Westermann, S., Fiddes, J., McCreight, J., and Bertino, L.: Retrieving, validating, and assimilating fractional snow-covered area from emerging optical satellites for snow reanalysis, EGU General Assembly 2020, Online, 4–8 May 2020, EGU2020-14969,, 2020.

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