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Since 2009, two satellites (SMOS from ESA and Aquarius from NASA) are providing global salinity measurements. While ocean temperature is easily derived from infrared radiation for instance, what parameter is measured by those satellites to estimate the salinity of the ocean?

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In a nutshell:

  1. The instrument measures microwave radiances (after calibration)

  2. If we know the sea surface temperature, we can use radiances to calculate emissivity.

  3. The emissivity at 1.4 GHz is itself a function of near-surface ocean salinity.

However, in reality, it's more complicated, because there are other factors that come into the equation, such as surface roughness, which depends on wind. Remote sensing problems are often underdetermined, and we need to make assumptions in order to retrieve the desired quantity. Measuring ocean salinity from space is a classical inverse problem.

You can find details in the highly cited paper:

Kerr, Yann H., Philippe Waldteufel, J-P. Wigneron, J. Martinuzzi, Jordi Font, and Michael Berger. "Soil moisture retrieval from space: The Soil Moisture and Ocean Salinity (SMOS) mission." Geoscience and Remote Sensing, IEEE Transactions on 39, no. 8 (2001): 1729-1735. (weblink).

which addresses both soil moisture and ocean salinity.

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    $\begingroup$ Thanks for the answer. It will be good to include some additional information. There is an important aspect missing in the answer, which is the role of surface roughness in the relationship between emissivity, temperature and salinity. $\endgroup$ – arkaia Apr 29 '14 at 14:19
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    $\begingroup$ Good point. I added some lines pointing this out in a qualitative sense, but I'm not an expert on ocean salinity measurements in particular; so if someone can give a more quantitative answer, that would be great. $\endgroup$ – gerrit Apr 29 '14 at 15:10

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