Satellites provide a temporally discontinuous record of hydrological conditions along Earth’s rivers (e.g., river width, height, water quality). The degree to which archived satellite data effectively capture the overall population of river flow frequency is unknown. Here, we use the entire archives of Landsat 5, 7, and 8 to determine when a cloud-free image is available over the United States Geological Survey (USGS) river gauges located on Landsat-observable rivers. We compare the flow frequency distribution derived from the daily gauge record to the flow frequency distribution derived from ideally sampling gauged discharge based on the timing of cloud-free Landsat overpasses. Examining the patterns of flow frequency across multiple gauges, we find that there is not a statistically significant difference between the flow frequency distribution associated with observations contained within the Landsat archive and the flow frequency distribution derived from the daily gauge data (α = 0.05), except for hydrological extremes like maximum and minimum flow. At individual gauges, we find that Landsat observations span a wide range of hydrological conditions (97% of total flow variability observed in 90% of the study gauges) but the degree to which the Landsat sample can represent flow frequency distribution varies from location to location and depends on sample size. The results of this study indicate that the Landsat archive is, on average, representative of the temporal frequencies of hydrological conditions present along Earth’s large rivers with broad utility for hydrological, ecologic and biogeochemical evaluations of river systems.
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