Detecting Sea Level Anomalies with Satellites

Content Type
User Story
Global map projection displaying sea surface height anomalies
Data Applications
Climate & Weather
Ecosystem Monitoring
Fisheries & Aquaculture
Ocean & Coastal Dynamics

The sea surface is a dynamic mixture of bumps and dips resulting from a variety of factors including gravity, ocean currents and the rotation of the Earth. Scientists study variations in sea surface height using radar altimeters on satellites. These altimeters emit radar pulses that bounce off the ocean’s surface and are detected by a sensor on the satellite when they return. Sea surface height derived from satellite altimeters is accurate to within about 3-4 centimeters.

Anomalies in sea level can be identified by calculating the difference between the measured sea surface height and the average sea surface height. By studying sea level anomalies, scientists can improve understanding of ocean circulation patterns and improve forecasts of climatological events such as El Niño and La Niña.

The NOAA Laboratory for Satellite Altimetry produces daily near-real time global sea level anomaly datasets from a constellation of radar altimeter missions. These datasets are now available through CoastWatch/OceanWatch and can be accessed here.

Global map projection displaying sea surface height anomalies
Global map of sea level anomalies for June 26, 2017 produced using the NOAA Laboratory for Satellite Altimetry’s daily near-real time dataset.


References and Related Reading