Topographic controls on active microwave behavior of mountain snowpacks

Yueqian Cao, Ana P. Barros

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


An uncalibrated distributed multiphysics snow model driven by downscaled weather forecasts (30-m, 15-min) was implemented as a Radar Observing System Simulator (ROSS) in Senator Beck Basin (SBB), Colorado to elucidate topographic controls on C-, X- and Ku-bands active microwave sensing of mountain snowpacks. Phase-space maps of time-evolving grid-scale ROSS volume backscatter show the accumulation branch of the backscatter-snow water equivalent (σ-SWE) hysteresis seasonal loop that is the physical basis for radar retrieval (direct inference) of SWE and snowpack physical properties. There is good agreement in the accumulation season (R2 ∼ 0.7) between Sentinel-1 and ROSS predictions corrected using average Sentinel-1 measurements under snow free conditions to estimate snow-ground backscatter, capturing well spatial patterns tied to elevation, slope, and aspect. Root Mean Square Deviations (RMSDs) do not exceed ±3.2 dB for ripening snowpacks in early spring and ±2.4 dB for dry snowpacks in the accumulation season when the mean absolute bias is <1 dB for all land-cover types with topographic slopes ≤ 30°. Grid-point RMSDs are attributed to the underestimation of snowfall on upwind slopes compounded with forecast errors for the weather near the ground. Like Sentinel-1, ROSS backscatter fields exhibit frequency-independent single-scaling behavior in the 60–150 m scale range for dry snowpacks in the accumulation season, while frequency-dependent scaling behavior emerges in the ablation season. This study demonstrates skillful physical modeling capabilities to emulate Sentinel-1 observations in complex terrain. Conversely, it suggests high readiness to retrieve snow mass and snowpack properties in mountainous regions from radar measurements at high-spatial resolutions enabled by SAR technology.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number113373
JournalRemote Sensing of Environment
StatePublished - Jan 2023


  • Microwave behavior
  • Modeling framework
  • Scaling analysis
  • Seasonal snow
  • Topographic controls

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Soil Science
  • Geology
  • Computers in Earth Sciences


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