Deep learning estimation of northern hemisphere soil freeze-thaw dynamics using satellite multi-frequency microwave brightness temperature observations

Kellen Donahue, John S. Kimball, Jinyang Du, Fredrick Bunt, Andreas Colliander, Mahta Moghaddam, Jesse Johnson, Youngwook Kim, Michael A. Rawlins

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Satellite microwave sensors are well suited for monitoring landscape freeze-thaw (FT) transitions owing to the strong brightness temperature (TB) or backscatter response to changes in liquid water abundance between predominantly frozen and thawed conditions. The FT retrieval is also a sensitive climate indicator with strong biophysical importance. However, retrieval algorithms can have difficulty distinguishing the FT status of soils from that of overlying features such as snow and vegetation, while variable land conditions can also degrade performance. Here, we applied a deep learning model using a multilayer convolutional neural network driven by AMSR2 and SMAP TB records, and trained on surface (~0–5 cm depth) soil temperature FT observations. Soil FT states were classified for the local morning (6 a.m.) and evening (6 p.m.) conditions corresponding to SMAP descending and ascending orbital overpasses, mapped to a 9 km polar grid spanning a five-year (2016–2020) record and Northern Hemisphere domain. Continuous variable estimates of the probability of frozen or thawed conditions were derived using a model cost function optimized against FT observational training data. Model results derived using combined multi-frequency (1.4, 18.7, 36.5 GHz) TBs produced the highest soil FT accuracy over other models derived using only single sensor or single frequency TB inputs. Moreover, SMAP L-band (1.4 GHz) TBs provided enhanced soil FT information and performance gain over model results derived using only AMSR2 TB inputs. The resulting soil FT classification showed favorable and consistent performance against soil FT observations from ERA5 reanalysis (mean percent accuracy, MPA: 92.7%) and in situ weather stations (MPA: 91.0%). The soil FT accuracy was generally consistent between morning and afternoon predictions and across different land covers and seasons. The model also showed better FT accuracy than ERA5 against regional weather station measurements (91.0% vs. 86.1% MPA). However, model confidence was lower in complex terrain where FT spatial heterogeneity was likely beneath the effective model grain size. Our results provide a high level of precision in mapping soil FT dynamics to improve understanding of complex seasonal transitions and their influence on ecological processes and climate feedbacks, with the potential to inform Earth system model predictions.

Original languageEnglish
Article number1243559
JournalFrontiers in Big Data
StatePublished - 2023


This work was supported by the NASA (80NSSC19M0114, 80NSSC19K0649, 80NSSC18K0980, and 80NSSC22K1238).

FundersFunder number
National Aeronautics and Space Administration80NSSC19M0114, 80NSSC19K0649, 80NSSC22K1238, 80NSSC18K0980


    • AMSR
    • SMAP
    • machine learning
    • microwave
    • neural network
    • soil freeze-thaw


    Dive into the research topics of 'Deep learning estimation of northern hemisphere soil freeze-thaw dynamics using satellite multi-frequency microwave brightness temperature observations'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

    Cite this