Sampling uncertainty properties of cloud fraction estimates from random transect observations
van de Poll, H. M., Grubb, H. and Astin, I. (2006) Sampling uncertainty properties of cloud fraction estimates from random transect observations. Journal of Geophysical Research, 111 (D22). Art. No. D22218. ISSN 0148-0227
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 Cloud cover is conventionally estimated from satellite images as the observed fraction of cloudy pixels. Active instruments such as radar and Lidar observe in narrow transects that sample only a small percentage of the area over which the cloud fraction is estimated. As a consequence, the fraction estimate has an associated sampling uncertainty, which usually remains unspecified. This paper extends a Bayesian method of cloud fraction estimation, which also provides an analytical estimate of the sampling error. This method is applied to test the sensitivity of this error to sampling characteristics, such as the number of observed transects and the variability of the underlying cloud field. The dependence of the uncertainty on these characteristics is investigated using synthetic data simulated to have properties closely resembling observations of the spaceborne Lidar NASA-LITE mission. Results suggest that the variance of the cloud fraction is greatest for medium cloud cover and least when conditions are mostly cloudy or clear. However, there is a bias in the estimation, which is greatest around 25% and 75% cloud cover. The sampling uncertainty is also affected by the mean lengths of clouds and of clear intervals; shorter lengths decrease uncertainty, primarily because there are more cloud observations in a transect of a given length. Uncertainty also falls with increasing number of transects. Therefore a sampling strategy aimed at minimizing the uncertainty in transect derived cloud fraction will have to take into account both the cloud and clear sky length distributions as well as the cloud fraction of the observed field. These conclusions have implications for the design of future satellite missions. This paper describes the first integrated methodology for the analytical assessment of sampling uncertainty in cloud fraction observations from forthcoming spaceborne radar and Lidar missions such as NASA's Calipso and CloudSat.