Weather-dependent nonlinear microwave behavior of seasonal high-elevation snowpacks

Yueqian Cao, Ana P. Barros

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Ensemble predictions of the seasonal snowpack over the Grand Mesa, CO (~300 km2) for the hydrologic year 2016–2017 were conducted using a multilayer snow hydrology model. Snowpack ensembles were driven by gridded atmospheric reanalysis and evaluated against SnowEx’17 measurements. The multi-frequency microwave brightness temperatures and backscattering behavior of the snowpack (separate from soil and vegetation contributions) show that at sub-daily time-scales, the ensemble standard deviation (i.e., weather variability at 3 × 3 km2) is < 3 dB for dry snow, and increases to 8–10 dB at mid-day when there is surficial melt that also explains the wide ensemble range (~20 dB). The linear relationship of the ensemble mean backscatter with SWE (R2 > 0.95) depends on weather conditions (e.g., 5–6 cm/dB/month in January; 2–2.5 cm/dB/month in late February as melt-refreeze cycles modify the microphysics in the top 50 cm of the snowpack). The nonlinear evolution of ensemble snowpack physics translates into seasonal hysteresis in the mesoscale microwave behavior. The backscatter hysteretic offsets between accumulation and melt regimes are robust in the L-and C-bands and collapse for wet, shallow snow at Ku-band. The emissions behave as a limit-cycles with weak sensitivity in the accumulation regime, and hysteretic behavior during melt that is different for deep (winter-spring transition) and shallow snow (spring-summer), and offsets that increase with frequency. These findings suggest potential for multi-frequency active-passive remote-sensing of high-elevation SWE conditional on snowpack regime, particularly suited for data-assimilation using coupled snow hydrologymicrowave models extended to include snow-soil and snow-vegetation interactions.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number3422
Pages (from-to)1-37
Number of pages37
JournalRemote Sensing
Issue number20
StatePublished - Oct 2 2020
Externally publishedYes


  • Hydrometeorology
  • Microwave hysteresis
  • Remote-sensing
  • SWE
  • Seasonal snow

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Earth and Planetary Sciences(all)


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