The Effects of Rainfall Inhomogeneity on Climate Variability of Rainfall Estimated from Passive Microwave Sensors

Christian Kummerow

Department of Atmospheric Science, Colorado State University, Fort Collins, Colorado

Philip Poyner

USAF, Vandenberg AFB, California

Wesley Berg, and Jody Thomas-Stahle

Department of Atmospheric Science, Colorado State University, Fort Collins, Colorado


Passive microwave rainfall estimates that exploit the emission signal of raindrops in the atmosphere are sensitive to the inhomogeneity of rainfall within the satellite field of view (FOV). In particular, the concave nature of the brightness temperature (Tb) versus rainfall relations at frequencies capable of detecting the blackbody emission of raindrops cause retrieval algorithms to systematically underestimate precipitation unless the rainfall is homogeneous within a radiometer FOV, or the inhomogeneity is accounted for explicitly. This problem has a long history in the passive microwave community and has been termed the beam-filling error. While not a true error, correcting for it requires a priori knowledge about the actual distribution of the rainfall within the satellite FOV, or at least a statistical representation of this inhomogeneity. This study first examines the magnitude of this beam-filling correction when slant-path radiative transfer calculations are used to account for the oblique incidence of current radiometers. Because of the horizontal averaging that occurs away from the nadir direction, the beam-filling error is found to be only a fraction of what has been reported previously in the literature based upon plane-parallel calculations. For a FOV representative of the 19-GHz radiometer channel (18 km × 28 km) aboard the Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission (TRMM), the mean beam-filling correction computed in this study for tropical atmospheres is 1.26 instead of 1.52 computed from plane-parallel techniques. The slant-path solution is also less sensitive to finescale rainfall inhomogeneity and is, thus, able to make use of 4-km radar data from the TRMM Precipitation Radar (PR) in order to map regional and seasonal distributions of observed rainfall inhomogeneity in the Tropics. The data are examined to assess the expected errors introduced into climate rainfall records by unresolved changes in rainfall inhomogeneity. Results show that global mean monthly errors introduced by not explicitly accounting for rainfall inhomogeneity do not exceed 0.5% if the beam-filling error is allowed to be a function of rainfall rate and freezing level and does not exceed 2% if a universal beam-filling correction is applied that depends only upon the freezing level. Monthly regional errors can be significantly larger. Over the Indian Ocean, errors as large as 8% were found if the beam-filling correction is allowed to vary with rainfall rate and freezing level while errors of 15% were found if a universal correction is used.