Wetlands are important ecosystems playing an essential role for continental water regulation and the hydrologic cycle. Moreover, they are sensitive to climate changes as well as anthropogenic influences, such as land-use or dams. However, the monitoring of these regions is challenging as they are normally located in remote areas without in situ measurement stations. Radar altimetry provides important measurements for monitoring and analyzing water level variations in wetlands and flooded areas. Using the example of the Pantanal region in South America, this study demonstrates the capability and limitations of ENVISAT radar altimeter for monitoring water levels in inundation areas. By applying an innovative processing method consisting of a rigorous data screening by means of radar echo classification as well as an optimized waveform retracking, water level time series with respect to a global reference and with a temporal resolution of about one month are derived. A comparison between altimetry-derived height variations and six in situ time series reveals accuracies of 30 to 50 cm RMS. The derived water level time series document seasonal height variations of up to 1.5 m amplitude with maximum water levels between January and June. Large scale geographical pattern of water heights are visible within the wetland. However, some regions of the Pantanal show water level variations less than a few decimeter, which is below the accuracies of the method. These areas cannot be reliably monitored by ENVISAT.
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