What is Ocean Surface Topography?

Ocean Surface Topography is the deviation of the height of the ocean surface from the geoid, or surface on which the Earth’s gravity field is uniform. The ocean surface topography is caused by ocean waves, tides, currents, and the loading of atmospheric pressure. The main application of ocean surface topography is for the determination of large-scale ocean circulation.

How is Ocean Surface Topography Measured?

Ocean surface topography is measured using a satellite altimeter.  Satellite altimetry combines precise orbit determination with accurate ranging by a microwave altimeter of the distance of ocean surface to the satellite to determine the ocean surface height relative to known reference surface or the center of the Earth. Precision orbit determination uses satellite tracking information and models of the forces (e.g., gravity, aerodynamic drag) that govern the satellite motion to produce accurate estimates of the satellite's orbital height.  The range from the satellite to the ocean surface is measured using an onboard altimeter that bounces microwave pulses off the ocean surface and measures the time it takes the pulses to return to the spacecraft. The highly accurate altimeter range measurements are subtracted from the satellite orbital height, resulting in ocean height measurements relative to well-defined reference system. Ocean surface topography is estimated by referencing the sea surface height to the geoid. Other ancillary information on the ocean surface is also obtained from satellite altimetry including information on surface waves and roughness.

What is Satellite Altimetry Data Used for?

The primary contribution of satellite altimetry to satellite oceanography has been to:

  • Improve the knowledge of ocean tides and develop global tide models.
  • Monitor the variation of global mean sea level and its relationship to changes in ocean mass and heat content.
  • Map the general circulation variability of the ocean, including the ocean mesoscale, over decades and in near real-time using multi-satellite altimetric sampling.

Altimetry data are often combined with data from other ocean-observing satellites and from in situ measurements taken from ships, profiling floats and satellite-tracked drifting buoys.  For example, these combined data sets are used to:

  • Calculate the transport of mass, momentum, heat, nutrients and salt by the oceans.
  • Increase understanding of ocean circulation and seasonal changes and how the general ocean circulation changes through time.
  • Test how ocean circulation is caused by winds.
  • Improve forecasting of climatic events like El Niño and La Niña as well as global climate change.
  • Describe the nature of ocean dynamics and develop a global view of Earth's ocean.
  • Monitor the regional variation of mean sea level and its relation to global climate change.
  • Provide estimates of significant wave height and wind speeds over the ocean.

Data Information

The NASA and NOAA Altimetric and Ocean Surface Topography Data Information page provides more information on what satellite altimetric data are available for scientific research, especially from NASA’s PO.DAAC and NOAA’s NCEI.  While this page does not contain any data, it provides succinct descriptions and pointers to the data via dataset information pages or online tools.  The information is broken up into multiple sections:

  • Missions – This contains a chronological listing of past, present and future satellite altimetric missions.
  • Data Centers – Provides information on mission mandated and non-mandated data centers that archive and distribute data.
  • Data Access –  How to access data from PO.DAAC and NODC and a listing of datasets available from each center.  
  • Coastal Altimetry – Descriptions of the various projects that provide coastal altimetric data.
  • Hydrological Altimetry – Descriptions of the various projects that provide hydrological altimetric data.
  • Climatological Altimetry – Descriptions of the various projects that provide climate data records and climatologies.
  • Globally Averaged Sea Level Change – A brief description of what it is and the different projects that calculate it.