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Extended Triple Collocation: estimating errors and correlation coefficients with respect to

an unknown target

Kaighin A. McColl1, Jur Vogelzang3, Alexandra G. Konings1, Dara Entekhabi1,2, María Piles4,5,

Ad Stoffelen3

Corresponding author: Kaighin A. McColl, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering,

Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA 02139 USA (kmccoll@mit.edu)

1Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Massachusetts Institute of Technology,

Cambridge, MA 02139 USA

2Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences, Massachusetts Institute of

Technology, Cambridge, MA 02139 USA

3KNMI, De Bilt, The Netherlands

4Remote Sensing Laboratory, Departament de Teoria del Senyal I Comunicacions, Universitat

Politecnica de Catalunya, Barcelona, Spain

5SMOS Barcelona Expert Center, Barcelona, Spain

Key points

Triple collocation is used to estimate the MSE of measurement system estimates

We extend it to estimate the correlation coefficient

The new approach requires no additional assumptions or computational burden

Abstract

Calibration and validation of geophysical measurement systems typically requires knowledge of

the “true” value of the target variable. However, the data considered to represent the “true”

values often include their own measurement errors, biasing calibration and validation results.

Triple collocation (TC) can be used to estimate the root-mean-square-error (RMSE), using

observations from three mutually-independent, error-prone measurement systems. Here, we

introduce Extended Triple Collocation (ETC): using exactly the same assumptions as TC, we

derive an additional performance metric, the correlation coefficient of the measurement system

with respect to the unknown target, . We demonstrate that

is the scaled, unbiased

signal-to-noise ratio, and provides a complementary perspective compared to the RMSE. We

apply it to three collocated wind datasets. Since ETC is as easy to implement as TC, requires no

additional assumptions, and provides an extra performance metric, it may be of interest in a wide

range of geophysical disciplines.

Index terms: Remote sensing (1855); Remote sensing (3360); Remote sensing and

electromagnetic processes (4275); Estimating and forecasting (1816); Model calibration (1846)

Keywords: triple collocation; signal-to-noise ratio; model validation; model calibration;

correlation coefficient

1. Introduction

Geophysical measurement systems, such as in-situ sensor networks, satellites and models,

require calibration and validation. This requires comparison of their measurements with true

observations of the target variable. A range of performance metrics exist to summarize this

comparison, including the root-mean-square-error (RMSE) and correlation coefficient. No single

metric can capture all relevant characteristics of the relationship between the measurement

system and the target, which may include, but are not limited to, the measurement system’s bias,

noise and sensitivity with respect to the target variable (Entekhabi et al., 2010).

In practice, however, the data considered to represent the “true” observations are themselves

imperfect due to their own measurement errors and differences in support scale. Triple

collocation (TC) is a technique for estimating the unknown error standard deviations (or RMSEs)

of three mutually-independent measurement systems, without treating any one system as

perfectly-observed “truth” (Stoffelen, 1998). It assumes a linear error model where errors are

uncorrelated with each other and the target variable. TC has been used widely in oceanography

to estimate errors in measurements of sea surface temperature (Gentemann, 2014; O’Carroll et

al., 2008), wind speed and stress (Portabella and Stoffelen, 2009; Stoffelen, 1998; Vogelzang et

al., 2011), and wave height (Caires and Sterl, 2003; Janssen et al., 2007). It has also been used in

hydrology to estimate errors in measurements of precipitation (Roebeling et al., 2012), fraction

of absorbed photosynthetically active radiation (D’Odorico et al., 2014), leaf area index (Fang et

al., 2012), and, particularly, soil moisture (Anderson et al., 2012; Dorigo et al., 2010; Draper et

al., 2013; Hain et al., 2011; Miralles et al., 2010; Parinussa et al., 2011; Scipal et al., 2008; Su et

al., 2014). It has been applied in data assimilation (Crow and van den Berg, 2010), and can also

be used to optimally rescale two measurement systems to a third reference system (Stoffelen,

1998; Yilmaz and Crow, 2013).

While TC is a powerful approach for estimating one metric of measurement system performance

(RMSE), a suite of metrics are needed for calibration and validation. In this paper, we extend TC

to also estimate the correlation coefficient of each measurement system with respect to the

unknown target variable. We call this approach Extended Triple Collocation (ETC). ETC is

simple to implement and adds no additional assumptions or computational cost to TC. In section

2, we review TC and introduce ETC, deriving an equation for the correlation coefficient from the

assumptions of TC alone. We show that the correlation coefficients provide important insights

into the fidelity of the measurement systems to the target variable beyond those provided by the

RMSE, combining information on the measurement system’s sensitivity and noise with

information on the strength of the target signal. In section 3, we present a collocated dataset of

ocean surface wind measurements from buoys, satellite scatterometers and a Numerical Weather

Prediction (NWP) forecast model and apply ETC to it in section 4.

2. Methods

2.1 Classical triple collocation

In this section, we review the derivation of the TC estimation equations. We begin with an affine

error model relating measurements to a (geophysical) variable, a standard form used in the triple

collocation literature (Zwieback et al., 2012):

(1)

where the () are collocated measurement systems linearly related to the true

underlying value with additive random errors , respectively. They could represent, for

instance, outputs from a model, a remotely sensed product, and point measurements from in-situ

stations. and are all random variables. and are the ordinary least-squares (OLS)

intercepts and slopes, respectively.

The covariances between the different measurement systems are given by

(2)

where . We assume that the errors from the independent sources have zero mean

(), are uncorrelated with each other () and with t ().

Using these assumptions, the two middle terms on the right hand side are zero, and so is the last

when , so the equation reduces to

(3)

where . Since there are six unique terms in the covariance matrix

(), we have six equations but seven unknowns

(); therefore, the system is underdetermined and there is no unique

solution. However, if we forego solving for and , and instead define a new variable

, we can write

(4)

We now have six equations and six unknowns, and can solve the system. We obtain the TC

estimation equation for RMSE,

(5)

We may also solve for , but this is not typically done in TC. We will show in the next section

that contains useful information that forms the basis for ETC. Within the soil moisture

community, triple collocation is often applied by calculating the covariances of two differences

between products (e.g., Scipal et al., 2008). This is equivalent to deriving the parameters from

the measurement system covariance equations as discussed here.

In practice, “representativeness errors” may exist due to differences in support scale between

measurement systems, causing subtle cross-correlations between the errors such that

. This introduces additional unknowns into the problem, rendering it

underdetermined. To avoid this, the representativeness error has been ignored in many studies

that use TC, often without justification. However, if an estimate for

exists, it can be easily

subtracted from . For wind measurements,

can be estimated using assumptions about the

wind spectra (Stoffelen, 1998; Vogelzang et al., 2011), but little is known about the

representativeness error for other target variables.

If we are willing to treat one of the measurement systems as a reference with known calibration

(i.e., known and ), we can reduce the number of unknowns and solve for the remaining

unknowns without introducing . Without loss of generality, assume is the reference system

and has been perfectly calibrated to so that and . Then we have

(6)

where the overbars denote sample means. The system is often solved iteratively, incorporating an

outlier detection and removal process. This is very important since covariance matrix estimates

are highly sensitive to outliers. In many studies, the measurement systems are rescaled before

applying TC, and it is presumed that and , simplifying the

TC estimation equation to

(7)

Note, however, that this approach should be used with caution. Naively rescaling the

measurement systems (e.g., by matching their temporal variances) and applying this simplified

estimation equation will deliver biased RMSE estimates, since error estimation and calibration

are fundamentally intertwined (Stoffelen, 1998). In practice, consistent estimates of calibration

parameters and error estimates can be obtained by solving the equations iteratively (see

Vogelzang and Stoffelen (2012) for more details), since triple collocation achieves the optimal

rescaling (Yilmaz and Crow, 2013). In this study we calculate RMSEs using equation 5 rather

than rescaling and using equation 7.

2.2 Extended triple collocation

In this section, we show that can be used to solve for the correlation coefficients of the

measurement systems with respect to the unknown truth. We demonstrate that the correlation

coefficient contains useful information beyond that provided by the RMSE. Recall that for OLS,

(8)

where is the correlation coefficient between and . Note that this relation can also be

obtained directly from (1) using the standard definitions of correlation and covariance. We

emphasize that the independent variable is the true underlying value and not subject to

measurement error, so the OLS framework is valid. If there are errors in the measurement of

that are not captured by the error model (1), then the OLS slope will be biased and a new error

model will be required (Cornbleet and Gochman, 1979; Deming, 1943). Overcoming these

biases was, in fact, the original motivation for the development of triple collocation, rather than

the estimation of RMSEs (Stoffelen, 1998).

The key insight of ETC is that, from (8), we obtain . Since is already

estimated from the data, and since we can solve for using (4), we can solve for . We

obtain the new ETC estimation equation

(9)

where the are correct up to a sign ambiguity. In practice, the measurement systems will

almost always be expected to be positively correlated to the unobserved truth.

The correlation coefficients provide important new information about the performance of the

measurement systems. For the given error model (1), it can be shown that

(10)

where we define

to be the unbiased signal-to-noise-ratio (in contrast,

the standard signal-to-noise ratio is

). The squared correlation coefficient,

therefore, is the unbiased signal-to-noise ratio, scaled between 0 and 1. It combines information

about (i) the sensitivity of the measurement system (ii) the variability of the signal and (iii)

the variability of the measurement error . In contrast, standard triple collocation only directly

estimates (iii). Note that, while TC returns an estimate for (i), this is estimated with respect to a

reference measurement system. Its intended purpose is for calibration against that reference

measurement system, not as an estimate of the true system sensitivity. Therefore,

contains

useful additional information relevant to measurement system validation that is not included in

. This is clear from the fact that, for a fixed MSE,

may take any value between 0 and 1,

its full range. This makes intuitive sense: a given noise level may be too high for a low-

sensitivity system measuring a weak signal, but acceptable for a high-sensitivity system

measuring a strong signal.

We note that

is closely related to the metric defined in Draper et al. (2013) as

. They are both measures of relative similarity that isolate phase differences

between two signals. Furthermore, it is apparent that

from equations (3) and (10), and therefore yields identical performance rankings compared to

those obtained using

. However, in contrast to the fRMSE, the correlation coefficient has

been used in many validation studies spanning several decades (e.g., Jackson et al. (2012); Mo et

al. (1982); Owe et al. (1992)).

3. Wind data

In this section, we describe the buoy, NWP and scatterometer wind products used in this study as

a case study for ETC. TC was originally designed for application to wind velocities (Stoffelen,

1998), and this target variable more closely matches the assumptions of TC compared to other

variables such as soil moisture (Yilmaz and Crow, 2014). Unlike other target variables,

reasonable estimates of the representativeness error also exist (Stoffelen, 1998; Vogelzang et al.,

2011). We use the same collocated triplets as in Vogelzang et al. (2011) and refer the reader to

this study for more detail on the data used; for completeness, we give a brief description here.

Three different scatterometer products are used. Wind retrievals from EUMETSAT’s C-band

Advanced SCATterometer (ASCAT) are processed to generate two different products: the 12.5-

km resolution ASCAT-12.5 product, and the 25-km resolution ASCAT-25 product. Retrievals

from the SeaWinds sensor on board QuickSCAT are processed to generate the 25-km resolution

SeaWinds-KNMI product. Vogelzang et al. (2011) consider a fourth product, SeaWinds-NOAA,

processed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. This product exhibited

anomalous behavior compared to the others and is omitted from this study. Table 1 gives further

details on the scatterometer products used, including their grid size, representativeness errors and

number of observations available that were also collocated with a buoy and NWP measurement.

The very large sample sizes (much larger than the recommended value of ~500 given by

Zwieback et al. (2012)) ensure precise ETC estimates.

Quality-controlled buoy data are taken from the European Center for Medium-range Weather

Forecasting (ECMWF) Meteorological Archival and Retrieval System. The NWP forecasts are

also obtained from the ECMWF. Collocated buoy-scatterometer-NWP triplets are obtained for

the period November 1, 2007 – November 30, 2009, except for those including the ASCAT-12.5

product, where the period is October 1, 2008 – November 30, 2009. The study domain is largely

restricted to the tropics and the coasts of Europe and North America, due to a lack of reliable

buoy observations outside these regions. The data are plotted in Figure 1. Note that for each

dataset, the marginal distributions are approximately Gaussian, although Gaussian data are not

required for TC or ETC (indeed, TC has frequently been applied to non-Gaussian data such as

soil moisture). Gaussianity does, however, ensure that the RMSE is well-defined and assists in

interpretation. The block correlations in the SeaWinds-KNMI and buoy data are due to binning

in those datasets.

<insert Table 1 around here>

<insert Figure 1 around here>

We use the ASCAT Wind Data Processor (AWDP) triple collocation scheme described in

Vogelzang and Stoffelen (2012, available at

http://research.metoffice.gov.uk/research/interproj/nwpsaf/scatterometer/TripleCollocation_NW

PSAF_TR_KN_021_v1_0.pdf), updated to also calculate correlation coefficients. The scheme

solves iteratively for the RMSEs and correlation coefficients and includes quality-control and

outlier detection and removal steps. We subtract out representativeness errors (Table 1)

calculated in (Vogelzang et al., 2011) and estimate 95% confidence intervals using bootstrapping

(Efron and Tibshirani, 1994) with N = 100 replicates. We perform the analysis with buoy-

scatterometer-NWP forecast triplets three separate times, using a different scatterometer product

each time. In all analyses, the buoy data are used as the reference dataset, for consistency with

Vogelzang et al. (2011). However, the choice of reference system only impacts the estimates of

and (not shown), not our estimates of and

.

4. Results and Discussion

<insert Figure 2 around here>

Figure 2 shows the ETC estimates of u, v RMSE and correlation coefficient for the buoy, NWP

and various scatterometer products. The RMSE estimates are all low and the correlation

coefficients are all high. They are consistent with reasonable guesses for and . As an

example, consider the ETC estimates of scatterometer u RMSE and

correlation coefficient , estimated using ASCAT-12.5 scatterometer data (we

use the mean of the bootstrapped replicates here). Substituting into (10), and assuming ,

we obtain . While the true value of is unknown, this estimate appears very reasonable

given the marginal distribution of u in Fig. 1a).

The results demonstrate the importance of using a validation metric that combines measures of

noise and sensitivity, rather than noise alone. Focusing on the scatterometer ETC estimates, we

see that, for u, the highest correlation coefficients correspond to the lowest RMSEs and vice

versa. Since does not vary between scatterometer products, this suggests that differences in

noise dominate differences in sensitivity between products. For v, however, this is not the case:

ASCAT-12.5 has the highest RMSE but does not have the lowest correlation coefficient. This

suggests that, while ASCAT-12.5 estimates of v are noisier than those of ASCAT-25, ASCAT-

12.5 has a greater because it is more sensitive to the signal, v, although it may also be an

artifact caused by incorrect assumptions in the error model (1). In this case study, the differences

in noise and sensitivity between products are relatively small. However, it is easy to imagine

scenarios where validating multiple satellite products on the basis of RMSE alone, compared to a

combination of RMSE and correlation coefficient, could yield very different interpretations of

their relative performances.

ETC builds on TC, but also inherits its weaknesses. Using different scatterometer products, we

would expect the ETC estimates of buoy RMSEs and correlation coefficients to remain identical;

similarly, for the NWP estimates. While the differences are small, they are too large to be

explained by sampling error (particularly for the NWP estimates), and are likely due to subtle

violations of the error model’s assumptions or inaccurate corrections for representativeness

errors. If the error model given in (1) is not valid, the estimates of RMSE and correlation

coefficient will be biased. The results are particularly sensitive to the assumption of independent

errors between buoy, scatterometer and NWP estimates. However, these are all pre-existing

weaknesses in TC and not unique to ETC. ETC uses exactly the same assumptions as TC.

4. Conclusions

Triple collocation is a powerful and popular technique for calibrating and validating

measurement system estimates of geophysical target variables. In this paper, we introduced ETC:

using exactly the same error model and assumptions as TC, we derived the correlation

coefficient of each measurement system with respect to the unknown target variable. We

demonstrated that ETC’s correlation coefficient provides useful insights into the correspondence

between the measurement system estimates and the target variable, beyond those provided by

TC’s RMSE estimate. By integrating information on the measurement system’s sensitivity to the

target variable, measurement noise and the variability of the target variable itself, the correlation

coefficient provides a complementary (and sometimes, very different) perspective to that of the

RMSE when validating measurement systems. In particular, the measurement noise (estimated

by the RMSE) is much more informative when interpreted relative to the observed signal: for

instance, a small amount of measurement noise, in absolute terms, may still be of concern if the

measurement system is relatively insensitive to the target variable, and/or the target signal is

weak (Entekhabi et al., 2010). Since ETC uses exactly the same assumptions as TC, it appears

that it may also facilitate the estimation of correlation coefficients in recent generalizations of TC

from measurement systems to (Zwieback et al., 2012) and, in cases where the target

variable has sufficient temporal autocorrelation, (Su et al., 2014). Finally, since ETC is as

easy to implement as TC, requires no additional assumptions, and provides estimates of two

complementary performance metrics instead of one, we suggest it may be of interest to

practitioners in a wide range of geophysical disciplines.

Acknowledgements

The authors thank Chun-Hsu Su (University of Melbourne) and Marcos Portabella (ICM-CSIC)

for useful discussions. We also thank an anonymous reviewer and Wade Crow (USDA) for

constructive and thorough reviews. The data used in this paper are available on request from the

corresponding author.

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Tables

Table 1: Scatterometer productsa

Product

Grid size (km)

N

ASCAT-12.5

12.5

0.63

1.00

32,317

ASCAT-25

25

0.49

0.69

54,187

SeaWinds-KNMI

25

1.28

0.44

76,947

aThe scatterometer products and values used are identical to those used in Vogelzang et al.

(2011). N is the number of collocated triplets available for each product. and are the

estimated representativeness errors in the u and v wind component measurements, respectively.

Figures

Figure 1. Scatter plots and kernel-density-estimated marginal distributions (on the same axes) for

the wind data used in this study, where u is the zonal wind velocity and v is the meridional wind

velocity. Plots for scatterometer products correspond to a) ASCAT-12.5 b) ASCAT-25 c)

SeaWinds-KNMI. Plots for d) buoys and e) NWP products are also shown. The marginal

distributions are all approximately normal for all products used.

Figure 2: (Rows 1 and 3): Triple collocation estimates of the RMSEs for u () and v ()

for the buoy, scatterometer and NWP products, respectively, calculated using equation 5. The

analysis is performed with buoy-scatterometer-NWP forecast triplets three separate times, using

a different scatterometer product each time (a) ASCAT-12.5 b) ASCAT-25 c) SeaWinds-

KNMI). (Rows 2 and 4): Extended triple collocation estimates of the correlation coefficient for u

() and v () for the buoy, scatterometer and NWP products, respectively, calculated

using equation 9. Bootstrap estimates (N = 100 replicates) of the 95% confidence intervals are

shown for each estimate. The bootstrapped sample means of and are identical to the

values given in Table 4 of Vogelzang et al. (2011).