In this study we use CryoSat-2 SAR (delay-Doppler synthetic-aperture radar) data in the Mekong River Basin to estimate water levels. Compared to classical pulse limited radar altimetry, medium- and small-sized inland waters can be observed with CryoSat-2 SAR data with a higher accuracy due to the smaller along track footprint. However, even with this SAR data the estimation of water levels over a medium-sized river (width less than 500 m) is still challenging with only very few consecutive observations over the water. The target identification with land–water masks tends to fail as the river becomes smaller. Therefore, we developed a classification approach to divide the observations into water and land returns based solely on the data. The classification is done with an unsupervised classification algorithm, and it is based on features derived from the SAR and range-integrated power (RIP) waveforms. After the classification, classes representing water and land are identified. Better results are obtained when the Mekong River Basin is divided into different geographical regions: upstream, middle stream, and downstream. The measurements classified as water are used in a next step to estimate water levels for each crossing over a river in the Mekong River network. The resulting water levels are validated and compared to gauge data, Envisat data, and CryoSat-2 water levels derived with a land–water mask. The CryoSat-2 water levels derived with the classification lead to more valid observations with fewer outliers in the upstream region than with a land–water mask (1700 with 2% outliers vs. 1500 with 7% outliers). The median of the annual differences that is used in the validation is in all test regions smaller for the CryoSat-2 classification results than for Envisat or CryoSat-2 land–water mask results (for the entire study area: 0.76 m vs. 0.96 m vs. 0.83 m, respectively). Overall, in the upstream region with small- and medium-sized rivers the classification approach is more effective for deriving reliable water level observations than in the middle stream region with wider rivers.
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