Known and unknown unknowns: uncertainty estimation in satellite remote sensing
- National Centre for Earth Observation, University of Oxford, Clarendon Laboratory, Parks Road, Oxford OX1 3PU, UK
Abstract. This paper discusses a best-practice representation of uncertainty in satellite remote sensing data. An estimate of uncertainty is necessary to make appropriate use of the information conveyed by a measurement. Traditional error propagation quantifies the uncertainty in a measurement due to well-understood perturbations in a measurement and in auxiliary data – known, quantified "unknowns". The under-constrained nature of most satellite remote sensing observations requires the use of various approximations and assumptions that produce non-linear systematic errors that are not readily assessed – known, unquantifiable "unknowns". Additional errors result from the inability to resolve all scales of variation in the measured quantity – unknown "unknowns". The latter two categories of error are dominant in under-constrained remote sensing retrievals, and the difficulty of their quantification limits the utility of existing uncertainty estimates, degrading confidence in such data.
This paper proposes the use of ensemble techniques to present multiple self-consistent realisations of a data set as a means of depicting unquantified uncertainties. These are generated using various systems (different algorithms or forward models) believed to be appropriate to the conditions observed. Benefiting from the experience of the climate modelling community, an ensemble provides a user with a more complete representation of the uncertainty as understood by the data producer and greater freedom to consider different realisations of the data.