Articles | Volume 10, issue 5
Research article
10 Oct 2016
Research article |  | 10 Oct 2016

On retrieving sea ice freeboard from ICESat laser altimeter

Kirill Khvorostovsky and Pierre Rampal

Abstract. Sea ice freeboard derived from satellite altimetry is the basis for the estimation of sea ice thickness using the assumption of hydrostatic equilibrium. High accuracy of altimeter measurements and freeboard retrieval procedure are, therefore, required. As of today, two approaches for estimating the freeboard using laser altimeter measurements from Ice, Cloud, and land Elevation Satellite (ICESat), referred to as tie points (TP) and lowest-level elevation (LLE) methods, have been developed and applied in different studies. We reproduced these methods for the ICESat observation periods (2003–2008) in order to assess and analyse the sources of differences found in the retrieved freeboard and corresponding thickness estimates of the Arctic sea ice as produced by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC). Three main factors are found to affect the freeboard differences when applying these methods: (a) the approach used for calculation of the local sea surface references in leads (TP or LLE methods), (b) the along-track averaging scales used for this calculation, and (c) the corrections for lead width relative to the ICESat footprint and for snow depth accumulated in refrozen leads. The LLE method with 100 km averaging scale, as used to produce the GSFC data set, and the LLE method with a shorter averaging scale of 25 km both give larger freeboard estimates comparing to those derived by applying the TP method with 25 km averaging scale as used for the JPL product. Two factors, (a) and (b), contribute to the freeboard differences in approximately equal proportions, and their combined effect is, on average, about 6–7 cm. The effect of using different methods varies spatially: the LLE method tends to give lower freeboards (by up to 15 cm) over the thick multiyear ice and higher freeboards (by up to 10 cm) over first-year ice and the thin part of multiyear ice; the higher freeboards dominate. We show that the freeboard underestimation over most of these thinner parts of sea ice can be reduced to less than 2 cm when using the improved TP method proposed in this paper. The corrections for snow depth in leads and lead width, (c), are applied only for the JPL product and increase the freeboard estimates by about 7 cm on average. Thus, different approaches to calculating sea surface references and different along-track averaging scales from one side and the freeboard corrections as applied when producing the JPL data set from the other side roughly compensate each other with respect to freeboard estimation. Therefore, one may conclude that the difference in the mean sea ice thickness between the JPL and GSFC data sets reported in previous studies should be attributed mostly to different parameters used in the freeboard-to-thickness conversion.

Short summary
We analyse two methods of freeboard retrieval from ICESat satellite data that were used to derive the two widely used Arctic sea ice thickness products. We show that although different factors result in significant local differences between freeboards, they roughly compensate each other with respect to overall freeboard estimation. Thus the difference found between the sea ice thickness datasets should be attributed to different parameters used in the freeboard-to-thickness conversion.