Soil surface roughness and above-ground vegetation water content (VWC) are estimated by inverting physical models for L-band scattering and absorption at 40° incidence angle using ground, airborne and Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP) radar data. The spatial resolution varies from field scale (airborne and ground) to 3 km (SMAP). The temporal resolution is defined by the length and interval of observation time windows (weeks to three months for surface roughness, and three to seven days for VWC). The validation of the roughness estimates shows an accuracy of 25% (bare surface) and 29 to 46% (croplands and pasture). The correlation degrades as vegetation becomes thicker, indicating the stronger scattering and absorption by thicker vegetation. The roughness retrievals with the SMAP data are within the physical range of 0.5 cm to 4 cm. They show larger values in croplands than in natural terrain. The VWC estimate modifies a ‘first guess’ (in situ values for the airborne experiment; and 16-daily climatology for SMAP). The VWC retrievals correctly follow the full growth of crops and the RMSE is smaller than 20% in the airborne retrievals: the correlation ranges from 0.57 to 0.91. These results demonstrate that the forward model inversion has a potential to retrieve VWC for the four major crops over the entire phase of the crop growth. The VWC retrievals from the SMAP data revised the climatology first guess more in the croplands, where the climatology is more likely to depart from the contemporaneous condition than in natural landcover. The value of this work lies in the fact that the surface roughness at the footprint scale is difficult to characterize and a global VWC product at SMAP’s spatial scale from microwave observations is rare, and that this paper presents a plausible pathway towards such products. The estimates at these temporal and spatial scales derived from microwave observations will be useful for studies of climate, agriculture, and soil moisture.
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