Articles | Volume 19, issue 4
Research article
22 Apr 2015
Research article |  | 22 Apr 2015

Swath-altimetry measurements of the main stem Amazon River: measurement errors and hydraulic implications

M. D. Wilson, M. Durand, H. C. Jung, and D. Alsdorf

Abstract. The Surface Water and Ocean Topography (SWOT) mission, scheduled for launch in 2020, will provide a step-change improvement in the measurement of terrestrial surface-water storage and dynamics. In particular, it will provide the first, routine two-dimensional measurements of water-surface elevations. In this paper, we aimed to (i) characterise and illustrate in two dimensions the errors which may be found in SWOT swath measurements of terrestrial surface water, (ii) simulate the spatio-temporal sampling scheme of SWOT for the Amazon, and (iii) assess the impact of each of these on estimates of water-surface slope and river discharge which may be obtained from SWOT imagery. We based our analysis on a virtual mission for a ~260 km reach of the central Amazon (Solimões) River, using a hydraulic model to provide water-surface elevations according to SWOT spatio-temporal sampling to which errors were added based on a two-dimensional height error spectrum derived from the SWOT design requirements. We thereby obtained water-surface elevation measurements for the Amazon main stem as may be observed by SWOT. Using these measurements, we derived estimates of river slope and discharge and compared them to those obtained directly from the hydraulic model. We found that cross-channel and along-reach averaging of SWOT measurements using reach lengths greater than 4 km for the Solimões and 7.5 km for Purus reduced the effect of systematic height errors, enabling discharge to be reproduced accurately from the water height, assuming known bathymetry and friction. Using cross-sectional averaging and 20 km reach lengths, results show Nash–Sutcliffe model efficiency values of 0.99 for the Solimões and 0.88 for the Purus, with 2.6 and 19.1 % average overall error in discharge, respectively. We extend the results to other rivers worldwide and infer that SWOT-derived discharge estimates may be more accurate for rivers with larger channel widths (permitting a greater level of cross-sectional averaging and the use of shorter reach lengths) and higher water-surface slopes (reducing the proportional impact of slope errors on discharge calculation).

Short summary
We use a virtual mission analysis on a ca. 260km reach of the central Amazon River to assess the hydraulic implications of potential measurement errors in swath-altimetry imagery from the forthcoming Surface Water and Ocean Topography (SWOT) satellite mission. We estimated water surface slope from imagery of water heights and then derived channel discharge. Errors in estimated discharge were lowest when using longer reach lengths and channel cross-sectional averaging to estimate water slopes.