PRESSEPORTAL Presseportal Logo
All Stories
Subscribe to Technische Universität München

29.01.2019 – 15:08

Technische Universität München

River levels tracked from space


Corporate Communications Center

Tel.: +49 89 289 10516 - E-Mail: - Web:

This news release online:

High resolution pictures:


River levels tracked from space

Satellite data facilitate comprehensive monitoring of major river systems

The 4,300 kilometer Mekong River is a lifeline for South-East Asia. If this mighty river system bursts its banks, flooding can affect the lives and livelihoods of millions of people. A new method developed by a team of researchers at the Technical University of Munich (TUM) makes it possible to monitor complex river basins using satellite data only.

Water levels in the Mekong basin, which extends through six countries in South-East Asia, are subject to considerable seasonal fluctuations. A new model now makes it possible to compute how water levels are impacted on various sections of the river by extreme weather events such as heavy rainfall or drought over extended periods.

Statistical modelling of the river system

To model the flow patterns of the river, with its complex network of distributaries, Claudia Klüppelberg, a professor of Mathematical Statistics at TUM, used statistical methods to link satellite data. A team at the German Geodetic Research Institute at TUM applied specially developed algorithms to raw measurement data collected from satellite missions. The new model makes it possible to extrapolate water level data for certain points to determine the levels at almost any location in the entire river system.

Calculating water levels with satellite data

Altimetry instruments transmit radar waves from satellites to Earth. These signals bounce back from the water surface towards the source. "By measuring the time taken by the radar waves to travel that distance, we can calculate the water levels," says Florian Seitz, a professor of Geodetic Geodynamics at TUM. "However, that is possible only where the satellite's track crosses a body of water. But for purposes of the water supply, hydrological analysis and safety issues such as the potential risk of flooding, it is equally important to know the water levels at other points."

Linking data from different satellite missions

Altimetry satellites on repetitive orbits usually pass over the same points on a repeating cycle of 10 to 35 days. As a result, water level data are captured for each of these points at regular intervals. The researchers also used observations collected by an SAR altimetry satellite. Instead of following a repetitive orbit, this satellite collects data at a given point on the river just once. However, the points covered are distributed throughout the entire river system. The SAR altimetry method is also superior to conventional systems in terms of accuracy.

The researchers of the involved institutes combined the different types of satellite data using a statistical method known as universal kriging. "Being able to include these additional, highly accurate measurements with a good spatial distribution in our model greatly improved the quality of the results," says Claudia Klüppelberg.

A single method for all major river systems

"The seasonal fluctuations in water levels on the Mekong, the diverse topography, and the regular flooding enabled us to test many different scenarios," says Florian Seitz. "The methods we have developed are applicable to all major river systems - even where there are no ground stations to measure water levels."


Boergens E., Dettmering D., Seitz F.: Observing water level extremes in the Mekong River Basin: The benefit of long-repeat orbit missions in a multi-mission satellite altimetry approach. Journal of Hydrology, 570, 463-472, 10.1016/j.jhydrol.2018.12.041, 2019.

Boergens E., Buhl S., Dettmering D., Klüppelberg C., Seitz F.: Combination of multi-mission altimetry data along the Mekong River with spatio-temporal kriging. Journal of Geodesy, 91(5), 519-534, 10.1007/s00190-016-0980-z, 2017.

More Information:

- Profile of Prof. Florian Seitz: 
- Profile of Prof. Claudia Klüppelberg: 

High-resolution images:


Prof. Dr.-Ing. Florian Seitz

Technical University of Munich (TUM)

Department of Civil, Geo and Environmental Engineering

German Geodetic Research Institute (DGFI-TUM)

Tel.: +49 (0)89 / 23031 - 1106

Prof. Dr. Claudia Klüppelberg

Technical University of Munich (TUM)

Department of Mathematics

Chair of Mathematical Statistics

Tel.: +49 (0)89 - 17432

The Technical University of Munich (TUM) is one of Europe's leading research
universities, with around 550 professors, 42,000 students, and 10,000 academic
and non-academic staff. Its focus areas are the engineering sciences, natural
sciences, life sciences and medicine, combined with economic and social
sciences. TUM acts as an entrepreneurial university that promotes talents and
creates value for society. In that it profits from having strong partners in
science and industry. It is represented worldwide with the TUM Asia campus in
Singapore as well as offices in Beijing, Brussels, Cairo, Mumbai, San Francisco,
and São Paulo. Nobel Prize winners and inventors such as Rudolf Diesel, Carl von
Linde, and Rudolf Mößbauer have done research at TUM. In 2006 and 2012 it won
recognition as a German "Excellence University." In international rankings, TUM
regularly places among the best universities in Germany.
More stories: Technische Universität München
More stories: Technische Universität München