Open water areas surrounded by sea ice significantly influence the ocean-ice-atmosphere interaction and contribute to Arctic climate change. Satellite altimetry can detect these ice openings and enables one to estimate sea surface heights and further altimetry data derived products. This study introduces an innovative, unsupervised classification approach for detecting open water areas in the Greenland Sea based on high-frequency data from Envisat and SARAL. Altimetry radar echoes, also called waveforms, are analyzed regarding different surface conditions. Six waveform features are defined to cluster radar echoes into different groups indicating open water and sea ice waveforms. Therefore, the partitional clustering algorithm K-medoids and the memory-based classification method K-nearest neighbor are employed, yielding an internal misclassification error of about 2%. A quantitative comparison with several SAR images reveals a consistency rate of 76.9% for SARAL and 70.7% for Envisat. These numbers strongly depend on the quality of the SAR images and the time lag between the measurements of both techniques. For a few examples, a consistency rate of more than 90% and a true water detection rate of 94% can be demonstrated. The innovative classification procedure can be used to detect water areas with different spatial extents and can be applied to all available pulse-limited altimetry datasets.
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