Radar remote sensing of the spring thaw transition across a boreal landscape

J. S. Kimball, K. C. McDonald, S. Frolking, S. W. Running

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

85 Scopus citations


The seasonal transition of the boreal forest between frozen and non-frozen conditions affects a number of ecosystem processes that cycle between winter dormant and summer active states. The relatively short Ku-band wavelength (2.14 cm) of the space-borne NASA scatterometer (NSCAT) is sensitive to changes in dielectric properties, associated with large-scale changes in the relative abundance and phase (frozen or thawed) of canopy and surface water. We used a temporal change detection analysis of NSCAT daily radar backscatter measurements to characterize the 1997 seasonal spring thaw transition period across the 106 km2 BOREAS study region of central Canada. In the spring, air temperature transitions from frozen to non-frozen conditions and surface observations of seasonal snow cover depletion were generally coincident with decreases in radar backscatter of more than 2.9 dB, regardless of regional landcover characteristics. We used a temporal classification of NSCAT daily differences from 5-day smoothed backscatter values to derive three simple indices describing the initiation, primary event and completion of the spring thaw transition period. Several factors had a negative impact on the relative accuracy of NSCAT-based results, including periodic gaps in NSCAT daily time-series information and a large (i.e., >2 cm day-1) spring rainfall event. However, these results were generally successful in capturing the seasonal transition of the region from frozen to non-frozen conditions, based on comparisons with regional weather station network information. These results illustrate the potential for improved assessment of springtime phenology and associated ecosystem dynamics across high latitude regions, where field based and optical remote-sensing methods are substantially degraded by frequent cloud cover, low solar illumination and sparse surface weather station networks.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)163-175
Number of pages13
JournalRemote Sensing of Environment
Issue number2
StatePublished - Jan 30 2004


This work was supported by grants from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the Alaska SAR Facility (ASF) at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. Portions of the research described in this paper were carried out at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, under contract with NASA. Meteorological data were obtained from the National Climatic Data Center, while landcover information was provided by the Canadian Center for Remote Sensing (CCRS). We thank Josef Cihlar, Jing Chen, Jane Liu, Reiner Zimmermann, Alan Betts, Alisa Keyser and Peter Thornton for their assistance, helpful comments and discussions.

FundersFunder number
National Aeronautics and Space Administration
University of Alaska Fairbanks


    • BOREAS
    • Boreal forest
    • Freeze/thaw
    • NSCAT
    • Phenology
    • Radar


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