Global assessment of the SMAP freeze/thaw data record and regional applications for detecting spring onset and frost events

Youngwook Kim, John S. Kimball, Xiaolan Xu, R. Scott Dunbar, Andreas Colliander, Chris Derksen

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

29 Citations (Scopus)


More than half of the global land area undergoes seasonal frozen and thawed conditions that constrain eco-hydrological processes. The freeze-thaw (FT) retrieval from satellite microwave remote sensing detects landscape changes between frozen and non-frozen conditions due to the strong dependence of surface microwave emissions on liquid water abundance. We conducted an assessment of the latest version (R16) of the NASA Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP) Level 3 FT (L3_FT) global product. The L3_FT product provides a global FT classification with 3-day mean temporal fidelity derived using SMAP L-band (1.4 GHz) microwave brightness temperature (Tb) retrievals. The R16 product uses both normalized polarization ratio (NPR) and single channel vertically-polarized Tb (FT-SCV) algorithms to obtain FT retrievals over land areas where frozen temperatures are a significant ecological constraint. The L3_FT product is generated in a standard global grid with similar grid cell resolution (36-km) as the SMAP radiometer footprint. An enhanced 9-km global grid L3_FT product is also produced from optimally interpolated SMAP Tb retrievals. The resulting L3_FT products span a larger domain and longer period (2015-present) than earlier product releases. The L3_FT 36-km results showed a respective global mean annual FT classification accuracy of approximately 78 and 90 percent for descending (AM) and ascending (PM) orbit observations in relation to independent surface air temperature-based FT estimates from ~5000 global weather stations. The FT accuracy was lower in areas with greater terrain complexity, open water and vegetation cover; where the combined land cover factors explained 29-53% of the variability in the SMAP FT global accuracy. The L3_FT 9-km product showed an apparent enhancement of FT spatial patterns, but with ~4% lower accuracy than the 36-km product; the lower 9-km accuracy was attributed to stronger degradation from land cover heterogeneity, particularly in coastal areas, and artifact noise introduced from the spatial interpolation of SMAP Tb retrievals. Selected regional applications indicated product utility in capturing anomalous frost events over Australia and seasonal thaw and spring onset patterns over Alaska. Overall, the L3_FT global accuracy meets or exceeds the FT product science requirements established by the mission, while enabling studies of dynamic FT and water mobility constraints influencing hydrological and ecosystem processes, and global water-carbon-energy cycle linkages.

Original languageEnglish
Article number1317
JournalRemote Sensing
Issue number11
Publication statusPublished - Jun 1 2019
Externally publishedYes


  • Boreal
  • Freeze/Thaw
  • Frost
  • L-band
  • Microwave remote sensing
  • SMAP
  • Spring onset

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Earth and Planetary Sciences


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