River monitoring from satellite radar altimetry in the Zambezi River basin
Abstract. Satellite radar altimetry can be used to monitor surface water levels from space. While current and past altimetry missions were designed to study oceans, retracking the waveforms returned over land allows data to be retrieved for smaller water bodies or narrow rivers. The objective of this study is the assessment of the potential for river monitoring from radar altimetry in terms of water level and discharge in the Zambezi River basin. Retracked Envisat altimetry data were extracted over the Zambezi River basin using a detailed river mask based on Landsat imagery. This allowed for stage measurements to be obtained for rivers down to 80 m wide with an RMSE relative to in situ levels of 0.32 to 0.72 m at different locations. The altimetric levels were then converted to discharge using three different methods adapted to different data-availability scenarios: first with an in situ rating curve available, secondly with one simultaneous field measurement of cross-section and discharge, and finally with only historical discharge data available. For the two locations at which all three methods could be applied, the accuracies of the different methods were found to be comparable, with RMSE values ranging from 4.1 to 6.5% of the mean annual in situ gauged amplitude for the first method and from 6.9 to 13.8% for the second and third methods. The precision obtained with the different methods was analyzed by running Monte Carlo simulations and also showed comparable values for the three approaches with standard deviations found between 5.7 and 7.2% of the mean annual in situ gauged amplitude for the first method and from 8.7 to 13.0% for the second and third methods.