Toward a Global Map of Raindrop Size Distributions. Part I: Rain-Type Classification and Its Implications for Validating Global Rainfall Products

Tristan S. L'Ecuyer, Christian Kummerow, and Wesley Berg

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


Variability in the global distribution of precipitation is recognized as a key element in assessing the impact of climate change for life on earth. The response of precipitation to climate forcings is, however, poorly understood because of discrepancies in the magnitude and sign of climatic trends in satellite-based rainfall estimates. Quantifying and ultimately removing these biases is critical for studying the response of the hydrologic cycle to climate change. In addition, estimates of random errors owing to variability in algorithm assumptions on local spatial and temporal scales are critical for establishing how strongly their products should be weighted in data assimilation or model validation applications and for assigning a level of confidence to climate trends diagnosed from the data.

This paper explores the potential for refining assumed drop size distributions (DSDs) in global radar rainfall algorithms by establishing a link between satellite observables and information gleaned from regional validation experiments where polarimetric radar, Doppler radar, and disdrometer measurements can be used to infer raindrop size distributions. By virtue of the limited information available in the satellite retrieval framework, the current method deviates from approaches adopted in the ground-based radar community that attempt to relate microphysical processes and resultant DSDs to local meteorological conditions. Instead, the technique exploits the fact that different microphysical pathways for rainfall production are likely to lead to differences in both the DSD of the resulting raindrops and the three-dimensional structure of associated radar reflectivity profiles. Objective rain-type classification based on the complete three-dimensional structure of observed reflectivity profiles is found to partially mitigate random and systematic errors in DSDs implied by differential reflectivity measurements. In particular, it is shown that vertical and horizontal reflectivity structure obtained from spaceborne radar can be used to reproduce significant differences in Zdr between the easterly and westerly climate regimes observed in the Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission Large-scale Biosphere–Atmosphere (TRMM-LBA) field experiment as well as the even larger differences between Amazonian rainfall and that observed in eastern Colorado. As such, the technique offers a potential methodology for placing locally observed DSD information into a global framework.