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ICESat, ERS1, ERS2, Envisat Laser and Radar Altimetry Datasets for the Cryosphere model Comparison Tool (CmCt) Input for Greenland and Antarctica

By Erika Simon1, Sophie Nowicki2, Jack Saba1, Tom Newman1, Matthew Beckley1

1. NASA/GSFC 2. University of Buffalo

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These datasets contain the ICESat, ERS1, ERS2, Envisat Laser and Radar Altimetry Datasets for CmCt Input data for Greenland and Antarctica. These reference observational datasets are used in the CmCt to compare ice sheet models with.

The ICESat/GLAS instrument was a lidar altimeter and the primary instrument on the NASA ICESat mission. It took point elevation measurements approximately every 170 meters along its track, and each shot had a footprint of approximately 70 meters in diameter.

The GLAS instrument contained 3 lasers, but due to some instrumentation issues, it was decided to turn the lasers on and off during predetermined time periods. For more detailed information about GLAS and the ICESat mission, visit the ICESat website.

For use with the CmCt project, the Greenland elevation data from ICESat/GLAS (Zwally et al, 2002) were preprocessed. The data were cleaned and limited to the ice sheets. At the time of creation the 634 release of the GLAS12 product was used (Zwally et al, 2014). 

The processing was accomplished by:

  1. restricting the data to GLAS data points only on the ice surface
  2. applying two data quality filters we required the GLAS surface reflectivity to be > 0.0375 and we required the uncertainty associated with the GLAS fitting procedure to be < 0.0375 (the numerical coincidence is in fact a coincidence). These are the same quality criteria that were used for IMBIE2 and thus are being implemented for the CmCt.
  3. checking the data against the reerence DEM (GIMP 90-m DEM for Greenland or Bamber 1-km DEM for Antarctica), requiring the elevation difference to be < 200m.

Please find more details on the data preprocessing in the Supporting Docs tab.

The Envisat (Environmental Satellite), ERS1, ERS2 (European Remote Sensing Satellites 1 and 2) radar altimeter datasets were also preprocessed to prepare the data to generate a comparison data set for the CmCt. Several filters were used to remove data that are not on the ice sheet or have questionable elevations. Please see the detailed processing descriptions in the Supporting Docs.

Radar and laser altimeters measure similar parameters. They measure the time of flight of photons from the spacecraft to the reflection point and back to the spacecraft. The time of flight is then used to calculate an elevation. Accurate elevations require precise knowledge of the spacecraft orbit, corrections for atmospheric scattering, and other factors.

There are several differences between the radar and laser altimetry data available here that should be noted:

  • The accuracy of the elevations calculated from the radar data is generally lower than the accuracy of elevations based on laser data, primarily because 
    • the radar beam is much broader (several km by the time it reaches the ground vs < 100 m for the laser beam).
    • the radar photons penetrate snow and ice a significant amount (cm to m), whereas the laser photons from ICESat penetrate minimally if at all.
  • ERS and Envisat worked at a lower pulse rate than ICESat, and had a shorter repeat period, so the data are sparser on the ground (but repeat approximately monthly). On the other hand, the radar satellites worked continuously, whereas ICESat only operated for 2-3 months per year. 
  • The radar data collectively cover a longer period of time, starting more than a decade earlier and extending past the end of the ICESat data.
  • ERS and Envisat were in orbits that left larger holes at the poles than ICESat (8.5 degrees for the radar satellites vs 4 degrees for ICESat).
  • Radar beams penetrate clouds, whereas the ICESat laser beam was scattered by clouds, with returns becoming unusable if the optical depth was much greater than 1.


Laser and Radar Altimetry Available Data Time Range:


ERS1: 1991-1995
ERS2: 1996-2002
Envisat: 2003-2012
ICESat/GLAS: 2003-2009


Downloading Data

The data can be downloaded from the Globus GHub-CmCt endpoint. Please log in and click on the Download tab to receive the Download instructions.