Reconstruction of Surface Kinematics From Sea Surface Height Using Neural Networks

Qiyu Xiao, Dhruv Balwada, C. Spencer Jones, Mario Herrero-González, K. Shafer Smith, Ryan Abernathey

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The Surface Water and Ocean Topography (SWOT) satellite is expected to observe sea surface height (SSH) down to scales approaching ∼15 km, revealing submesoscale patterns that have never before been observed on global scales. Features at these soon-to-be-observed scales, however, are expected to be significantly influenced by internal gravity waves, fronts, and other ageostrophic processes, presenting a serious challenge for estimating surface velocities from SWOT observations. Here we show that a data-driven approach can be used to estimate the surface flow, particularly the kinematic signatures of smaller scale flows, from SSH observations, and that it performs significantly better than using the geostrophic relationship. We use a Convolutional Neural Network (CNN) trained on submesoscale-permitting high-resolution simulations to test the possibility of reconstructing surface vorticity, strain, and divergence from snapshots of SSH. By evaluating success using pointwise accuracy and vorticity-strain-divergence joint distributions, we show that the CNN works well when inertial gravity wave amplitudes are relatively weak. When the wave amplitudes are strong, reconstructions of vorticity and strain are less accurate; however, we find that the CNN naturally filters the wave-divergence, making divergence a surprisingly reliable field to reconstruct. We also show that when applied to realistic simulations, a CNN model pretrained with simpler simulation data performs well, indicating a possible path forward for estimating real flow statistics with limited observations.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere2023MS003709
JournalJournal of Advances in Modeling Earth Systems
Issue number10
StatePublished - Oct 2023

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Global and Planetary Change
  • Environmental Chemistry
  • General Earth and Planetary Sciences


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