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How long do satellites need to overlap? Evaluation of climate data stability from overlapping satellite records


Sensors on satellites provide unprecedented understanding of the Earth’s climate system by measuring incoming solar radiation, as well as both passive and active observations of the entire Earth with outstanding spatial and temporal coverage that would be currently impossible without satellite technology. A common challenge with satellite observations is to quantify their ability to provide well-calibrated, long-term, stable records of the parameters they measure. Ground-based intercomparisons offer some insight, while reference observations and internal calibrations give further assistance for understanding long-term stability. A valuable tool for evaluating and developing long-term records from satellites is the examination of data from overlapping satellites. Prior papers have used overlap periods to identify the offset between data from two satellites and estimate the added uncertainty to long-term records. This paper addresses the length of overlap needed to identify an offset or a drift in the offsets of data between two sensors. The results are presented for the general case of sensor overlap by using the case of overlap of the SORCE SIM and SOLSTICE solar irradiance data as an example. To achieve a 1 % uncertainty in estimating the offset for these two instruments’ measurement of the Mg II core (280 nm) requires approximately 5 months of overlap. For relative drift to be identified within 0.1 % yr−1 uncertainty, the overlap for these two satellites would need to be 2.6 years. Additional overlap of satellite measurements is needed if, as is the case for solar monitoring, unexpected jumps may occur because these jumps add to the uncertainty of both offsets and drifts; the additional length of time needed to account for a single jump in the overlap data may be as large as 50 % of the original overlap period in order to achieve the same desired confidence in the stability of the merged dataset. Extension of the results presented here are directly applicable to satellite Earth observations. Approaches for Earth observations may be challenged by the complexity of those observations but may also benefit from ancillary observations taken from ground-based and in situ sources. Difficult choices need to be made when monitoring approaches are considered; we outline some attempts at optimizing networks based on economic principles. The careful evaluation of monitoring overlap is important to the appropriate application of observational resources and to the usefulness of current and future observations.

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