Input of freshwater from rivers is a critical consideration in the study and management of coral and seagrass ecosystems in tropical regions. Low salinity water can transport natural and manmade river-borne contaminants into the sea, and can directly stress marine ecosystems that are adapted to higher salinity levels. An efficient method of mapping surface salinity distribution over large ocean areas is required to address such environmental issues. We describe here an investigation of the utility of airborne remote sensing of sea surface salinity using an L-band passive microwave radiometer. The study combined aircraft overflights of the scanning low frequency microwave radiometer (SLFMR) with shipboard and in situ instrument deployments to map surface and subsurface salinity distributions, respectively, in the Great Barrier Reef Lagoon. The goals of the investigation were (a) to assess the performance of the airborne salinity mapper; (b) to use the maps and in situ data to develop an integrated description of the structure and zone of influence of a river plume under prevailing monsoon weather conditions; and (c) to determine the extent to which the sea surface salinity distribution expressed the subsurface structure. The SLFMR was found to have sufficient precision (1 psu) and accuracy (∼3 psu) to provide a useful description of plumes emanating from estuaries of moderate discharge levels with a salinity range of 16 to 32 psu in the open sea. The aircraft surveys provided a means of rapidly assessing the spatial extent of the surface salinity distribution of the plume, while in situ data revealed subsurface structure detail and provided essential validation data for the SLFMR. The combined approach allowed us to efficiently determine the structure and zone of influence of the plume, and demonstrated the utility of sea surface salinity remote sensing for studying coastal circulation in tropical seas. © 2003 Published by Elsevier Science Inc.
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