Uncertainty information in climate data records from Earth observation
The question of how to derive and present uncertainty information in climate data records (CDRs) has received sustained attention within the European Space Agency Climate Change Initiative (CCI), a programme to generate CDRs addressing a range of essential climate variables (ECVs) from satellite data. Here, we review the nature, mathematics, practicalities, and communication of uncertainty information in CDRs from Earth observations. This review paper argues that CDRs derived from satellite-based Earth observation (EO) should include rigorous uncertainty information to support the application of the data in contexts such as policy, climate modelling, and numerical weather prediction reanalysis. Uncertainty, error, and quality are distinct concepts, and the case is made that CDR products should follow international metrological norms for presenting quantified uncertainty. As a baseline for good practice, total standard uncertainty should be quantified per datum in a CDR, meaning that uncertainty estimates should clearly discriminate more and less certain data. In this case, flags for data quality should not duplicate uncertainty information, but instead describe complementary information (such as the confidence in the uncertainty estimate provided or indicators of conditions violating the retrieval assumptions). The paper discusses the many sources of error in CDRs, noting that different errors may be correlated across a wide range of timescales and space scales. Error effects that contribute negligibly to the total uncertainty in a single-satellite measurement can be the dominant sources of uncertainty in a CDR on the large space scales and long timescales that are highly relevant for some climate applications. For this reason, identifying and characterizing the relevant sources of uncertainty for CDRs is particularly challenging. The characterization of uncertainty caused by a given error effect involves assessing the magnitude of the effect, the shape of the error distribution, and the propagation of the uncertainty to the geophysical variable in the CDR accounting for its error correlation properties. Uncertainty estimates can and should be validated as part of CDR validation when possible. These principles are quite general, but the approach to providing uncertainty information appropriate to different ECVs is varied, as confirmed by a brief review across different ECVs in the CCI. User requirements for uncertainty information can conflict with each other, and a variety of solutions and compromises are possible. The concept of an ensemble CDR as a simple means of communicating rigorous uncertainty information to users is discussed. Our review concludes by providing eight concrete recommendations for good practice in providing and communicating uncertainty in EO-based climate data records.