With a planned launch no later than September 2018, the Ice, Cloud and land Elevation Satellite-2 (ICESat-2) will provide a global distribution of geodetic elevation measurements for both the terrain surface and relative canopy heights. The Advanced Topographic Laser Altimeter System (ATLAS) instrument on-board ICESat-2 is a LiDAR system sensitive to the photon level. The photon-counting technology has many advantages for space-based altimetry, but also has challenges, particularly with delineating the signal from background noise. As such, a current unknown facing the ecosystem community is the performance of ICESat-2 for terrain and canopy height retrievals. This paper aims to provide the science user community of ICESat-2 land/vegetation data products with a realistic understanding of the performance characteristics and potential uncertainties related to the vertical sampling error, which includes the error in the perceived height value and the measurement precision. Terrain and canopy heights from simulated ICESat-2 data are evaluated against the airborne LiDAR ground truth values to provide a baseline performance uncertainty for multiple ecosystems. Simulation results for wooded savanna and boreal forest result in a mean bias error and error uncertainty (precision) for terrain height retrievals at 0.06 m (0.24 m RMSE) and −0.13 m (0.77 m RMSE). In contrast, results over ecosystems with dense vegetation show terrain errors of 1.93 m (1.66 m RMSE) and 2.52 m (3.18 m RMSE), indicating problems extracting terrain height due to diminished ground returns. Simulated top of canopy heights from ICESat-2 underestimated true top of canopy returns for all types analyzed with errors ranging from 0.28 m (1.39 m RMSE) to 1.25 m (2.63 m RMSE). These results comprise a first step in a comprehensive evaluation of ICESat-2 anticipated performance. Future steps will include solar noise impact analysis and investigation into performance discrepancy between visible and near-infrared wavelengths.
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