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From Research to Operations: The USDA Global Reservoir and Lake Monitor


The Global Reservoir and Lake Monitor (GRLM) records variations in surface water height for approximately 70 lakes and reservoirs worldwide using a combination of satellite radar altimetry data sets. The project was initiated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Foreign Agricultural Service (FAS) in cooperation with the National Aeronautic and Space Administration’s (NASA) Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC) and the University of Maryland (UMD). On-line since the end of 2003, the program focuses on the delivery of near-real-time products within an operational framework and exists within the USDA’s decision support system (DSS) through the larger cooperative USDA/NASA Global Agricultural Monitoring (GLAM) program. Currently, near-real-time products are derived from the NASA/Centre National d’Etudes Spatiales (CNES) Jason-1 mission (post-2002) with archival products derived from the NASA/CNES TOPEX/Poseidon mission (1992–2002) and the US Naval Research Lab’s (NRL) Geosat follow-on (GFO) mission (2000–2008). Validation exercises show that the products vary in accuracy from a few centimeters RMS (root mean square) to several tens of centimeters RMS depending on the target size and surface wave conditions. On a weekly basis, new satellite data are retrieved and products updated. Output is in the form of graphs and text files with web links to other imaging and information resources. The next phase of the program sees an expansion to over 500 lakes and reservoirs via the incorporation of products derived from the European Space Agency (ESA) remote sensing satellites (ERS-1 and ERS-2, 1992–2008) and the ESA environmental satellite ENVISAT (post-2002). Near-real-time products will also be continued via data from the follow-on Jason-2 mission (post-2009). The USDA/FAS utilize the products for irrigation potential considerations and as general indicators of drought and high-water conditions. The monitoring system thus has relevance to water resources management and agriculture efficiency at both the national and international level.


  • Lakes
  • Reservoirs
  • Satellite radar altimetry
  • Surface water level

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NASA Radar Altimeter


Archiving, Validation and Interpretation of Satellite Oceanographic data


Centre National d’Études Spatiales


Center for Space Research (University of Texas, Austin)


Defect Detection and Prevention


Deformation, Ecosystem Structure and Dynamics of Ice


Doppler Orbit Determination Radiopositioning Integrated on Satellite


Decision Support System


Environmental Satellite


European Remote Sensing Satellite


European Space Agency


Environmental Systems Research Institute


European Org. for the Exploitation of Meteorological Satellites


Foreign Agricultural Service


Famine Early Warning Systems


Geophysical Data Record


United States Group on Earth Observations


Global Earth Observation System of Systems


Geosat Follow-On Mission


Global Ionospheric Map


Global Agricultural Monitoring Program


Great Lakes Information Network


Global Positioning System


Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment


Global Reservoir and Lake Monitor


Goddard Space Flight Center


Graphical User Interface


Ice, Cloud and Land Elevation Satellite


Intermediate Geophysical Data Record


Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change


International Reference Ionosphere Model


Indian Space Research Organization


Integrated Systems Solution


International Terrestrial Reference Frame


Information Technology and Scientific Services


Jet Propulsion Laboratory


Least Absolute Deviation


World Lakes Network


Laboratoire d’Études en Géophysique et Océanographie Spatiales


MODerate resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer


Medium Precision Orbit Ephemerides


National Aeronautic and Space Administration


National Centers for Environmental Prediction


National Geospatial Intelligence Agency


National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration


Navy Operational Global Atmospheric Prediction System


National Research Council


Naval Research Lab


Office of Global Analysis


Office of Management and Budget


Ocean Surface Topography Mission


Precise Orbit Ephemerides


Root Mean Square


Satellite with ARgos and ALtika


Sensor Data Record


Stinger Ghaffarian Technologies company


Satellite Laser Ranging


Solid-State ALTimeter


Surface Water and Ocean Topography




Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission


University of Maryland


United States Agency for International Development


United States Department of Agriculture


United States Geological Survey


World Agriculture Outlook Board


World Agriculture Production


World Agriculture Supply and Demand Estimate


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The authors wish to acknowledge the USDA/FAS/OGA and NASA grants NNS06AA15G, NNX08AM72G, NNX08AT88G and NASA/JPL sub-award 4–33637(UMD) for supporting this program. Acknowledgment also goes to NASA/PODAAC, CNES/AVISO, LEGOS, NOAA, ESA UK-PAF and ESA F-PAC, for provision of the T/P, Jason-1, Jason-2, GFO, ERS and Envisat satellite altimetric data sets.

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Birkett, C., Reynolds, C., Beckley, B., Doorn, B. (2011). From Research to Operations: The USDA Global Reservoir and Lake Monitor. In: Vignudelli, S., Kostianoy, A., Cipollini, P., Benveniste, J. (eds) Coastal Altimetry. Springer, Berlin, Heidelberg.

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