River gauging at global scale using optical and passive microwave remote sensing

Albert I.J.M. Van Dijk, G. Robert Brakenridge, Albert J. Kettner, Hylke E. Beck, Tom De Groeve, Jaap Schellekens

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

85 Scopus citations


Recent discharge observations are lacking for most rivers globally. Discharge can be estimated from remotely sensed floodplain and channel inundation area, but there is currently no method that can be automatically extended to many rivers. We examined whether automated monitoring is feasible by statistically relating inundation estimates from moderate to coarse (>0.05°) resolution remote sensing to monthly station discharge records. Inundation extents were derived from optical MODIS data and passive microwave sensors, and compared to monthly discharge records from over 8000 gauging stations and satellite altimetry observations for 442 reaches of large rivers. An automated statistical method selected grid cells to construct “satellite gauging reaches” (SGRs). MODIS SGRs were generally more accurate than passive microwave SGRs, but there were complementary strengths. The rivers widely varied in size, regime, and morphology. As expected performance was low (R < 0.7) for many (86%), often small or regulated, rivers, but 1263 successful SGRs remained. High monthly discharge variability enhanced performance: a standard deviation of 100–1000 m3 s−1 yielded ca. 50% chance of R > 0.6. The best results (R > 0.9) were obtained for large unregulated lowland rivers, particularly in tropical and boreal regions. Relatively poor results were obtained in arid regions, where flow pulses are few and recede rapidly, and in temperate regions, where many rivers are modified and contained. Provided discharge variations produce clear changes in inundated area and gauge records are available for part of the satellite record, SGRs can retrieve monthly river discharge values back to around 1998 and up to present.
Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)6404-6418
Number of pages15
JournalWater Resources Research
Issue number8
StatePublished - Aug 1 2016
Externally publishedYes

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