A review and framework for the evaluation of pixel-level uncertainty estimates in satellite aerosol remote sensing

Sayer, Andrew M.; Govaerts, Yves; Kolmonen, Pekka; Lipponen, Antti; Luffarelli, Marta; Mielonen, Tero; Patadia, Falguni; Popp, Thomas; Povey, Adam C.; Stebel, Kerstin; Witek, Marcin L.

Recent years have seen the increasing inclusion of per-retrieval prognostic (predictive) uncertainty estimates within satellite aerosol optical depth (AOD) data sets, providing users with quantitative tools to assist in the optimal use of these data. Prognostic estimates contrast with diagnostic (i.e. relative to some external truth) ones, which are typically obtained using sensitivity and/or validation analyses. Up to now, however, the quality of these uncertainty estimates has not been routinely assessed. This study presents a review of existing prognostic and diagnostic approaches for quantifying uncertainty in satellite AOD retrievals, and it presents a general framework to evaluate them based on the expected statistical properties of ensembles of estimated uncertainties and actual retrieval errors. It is hoped that this framework will be adopted as a complement to existing AOD validation exercises; it is not restricted to AOD and can in principle be applied to other quantities for which a reference validation data set is available. This framework is then applied to assess the uncertainties provided by several satellite data sets (seven over land, five over water), which draw on methods from the empirical to sensitivity analyses to formal error propagation, at 12 Aerosol Robotic Network (AERONET) sites. The AERONET sites are divided into those for which it is expected that the techniques will perform well and those for which some complexity about the site may provide a more severe test. Overall, all techniques show some skill in that larger estimated uncertainties are generally associated with larger observed errors, although they are sometimes poorly calibrated (i.e. too small or too large in magnitude). No technique uniformly performs best. For powerful formal uncertainty propagation approaches such as optimal estimation, the results illustrate some of the difficulties in appropriate population of the covariance matrices required by the technique. When the data sets are confronted by a situation strongly counter to the retrieval forward model (e.g. potentially mixed land–water surfaces or aerosol optical properties outside the family of assumptions), some algorithms fail to provide a retrieval, while others do but with a quantitatively unreliable uncertainty estimate. The discussion suggests paths forward for the refinement of these techniques.



Sayer, Andrew M. / Govaerts, Yves / Kolmonen, Pekka / et al: A review and framework for the evaluation of pixel-level uncertainty estimates in satellite aerosol remote sensing. 2020. Copernicus Publications.


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