Envisat radar altimetry tracks river levels worldwide

Next week ESA previews a new product range called River and Lake Level from Altimetry that provides previously inaccessible information on water levels of major lakes and rivers across the Earth's surface, derived from Envisat and ERS radar altimeter measurements. Hydrologists can use this new data to monitor river heights around the planet, assess the impact of global warming and help with water resource management. Inland water bodies are important as key sources of both water and food for the people living round them. They are also often regions of maximum biodiversity and represent early indicators of regional climate change.

A new processing algorithm has been developed to extract rivers and lakes level findings from raw radar altimeter data. The development effort was headed by Professor Philippa Berry of the UK's De Montfort University: "The new radar altimeter product is a great leap forward for hydrologists. It gives them a new tool to study both the historical changes in water table levels and critically important data to use in forecasting models of water availability, hydroelectric power production, flood and drought events and overall climate changes."

The Radar Altimeter 2 (RA-2) flown aboard ESA's Envisat environmental satellite is the improved follow-on to earlier radar altimeters on the ERS-1 and ERS-2 spacecraft. From its 800 km-high polar orbit it sends 1800 separate radar pulses down to Earth per second then records how long their echoes take to return timing their journey down to under a nanosecond to calculate the exact distance to the planet below.

Radar altimeters were first flown in space back in the 1970s, aboard NASA's Skylab and Seasat. These early efforts stayed focused firmly on the oceans, as less-smooth land surfaces returned indecipherable signals. But as the technology improved reliable land height data became available. Envisat's RA-2 has an innovative 'four-wheel drive' tracking system allowing it to

Contact: Jerome Benveniste
European Space Agency

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