Satellite remote sensing of surface energy balance: Success, failures, and unresolved issues in FIFE


  • Forrest G. Hall,

  • Karl F. Huemmrich,

  • Scott J. Goetz,

  • Piers J. Sellers,

  • Jaime E. Nickeson


The FIFE staff science group, consisting of the authors, developed and evaluated process models relating surface energy and mass flux, that is, surface rates, to boundary layer and surface biophysical characteristics, that is, surface states. In addition, we developed and evaluated remote sensing algorithms for inferring surface state characteristics. In this paper we report the results of our efforts. We also look in detail at the sensor and satellite platform requirements (spatial resolution and orbital requirements) as driven by surface energy balance dynamics and spatial variability. We examine also the scale invariance of the process models and remote sensing algorithms, that is, to what degree do the remotely sensed parameters and energy balance relations translate from the patch level where they were developed to the mesoscale level where they are required? Finally, we examine the atmospheric correction and calibration issues involved in extending the remotely sensed observations within a season and between years. From these investigations we conclude that (1) existing formulations for the radiation balance and latent heat components of the surface energy balance equation are valid at the patch level. (2) Many of the surface physiological characteristics that parameterize these formulations can be estimated using satellite remote sensing at both local and regional scales; a few important ones cannot. (3) The mathematical structures relating radiation and surface energy flux to remote sensing parameters are, for the most part, scale invariant over the First International Satellite Land Surface Climatology Project (ISLSCP) Field Experiment (FIFE) study area. The conditions for scale invariance are derived. (4) The precision of satellite remote sensing estimates of surface reflectance, calibrated and corrected for atmospheric effects, is no worse than about 1% absolute. The errors may actually be smaller, but an upper bound of 1% results from sampling variance caused by differences among the satellite and ground sensors in spatial resolution, atmospheric effects, and calibration. (5) Afternoon cumulus in the study area required both the Landsat and the SPOT satellites for monitoring of the vegetation dynamics. This result implies the need for multiple polar orbiters, or geosynchronous satellites in an operational implementation. We found that canopy Fpar, the fraction of incident photosynthetically active radiation absorbed by a canopy, can be estimated with an error of about 10% using remote sensing, provided that regional variability in the reflectance of the canopy substrate is dealt with properly. We also found that spectral vegetation indices (VIs) respond primarily to the photosynthetically active radiation absorbed by the live or green component of the canopy as opposed to its necrotic or dead vegetation. This is of critical importance since radiation absorption by the live part of the canopy is the rate-limiting process for photosynthesis and other key process rates such as evaporation. We found for the FIFE study area the surface moisture content at O to 10 cm to be another key rate-limiting variable in photosynthesis and evaporation. At gravimetric soil moisture levels below 20%, photosynthesis and evaporation were strongly attenuated. Only microwave sensors have shown potential for satellite remote sensing of soil moisture and only in the top few centimeters. Hydrological models may also play a critical role in monitoring root zone soil moisture levels, but additional research is needed. From our review of the research of others in FIFE we conclude that downwelling shortwave radiation and surface albedo are also amenable to remote sensing. Unfortunately, from our research we also found that the remote estimation of surface temperature to useful accuracies is problematical; consequently, the use of thermal infrared measurements to infer sensible heat flux is probably not feasible to acceptable accuracies.