Estimating soil moisture using remote sensing data: A machine learning approach

Document Type



Soil moisture is an integral quantity in hydrology that represents the average conditions in a finite volume of soil. In this paper, a novel regression technique called Support Vector Machine (SVM) is presented and applied to soil moisture estimation using remote sensing data. SVM is based on statistical learning theory that uses a hypothesis space of linear functions based on Kernel approach. SVM has been used to predict a quantity forward in time based on training from past data. The strength of SVM lies in minimizing the empirical classification error and maximizing the geometric margin by solving inverse problem. SVM model is applied to 10 sites for soil moisture estimation in the Lower Colorado River Basin (LCRB) in the western United States. The sites comprise low to dense vegetation. Remote sensing data that includes backscatter and incidence angle from Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission (TRMM), and Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI) from Advanced Very High Resolution Radiometer (AVHRR) are used to estimate soil water content (SM). Simulated SM (%) time series for the study sites are available from the Variable Infiltration Capacity Three Layer (VIC) model for top 10 cm layer of soil for the years 1998–2005. SVM model is trained on 5 years of data, i.e. 1998–2002 and tested on 3 years of data, i.e. 2003–2005. Two models are developed to evaluate the strength of SVM modeling in estimating soil moisture. In model I, training and testing are done on six sites, this results in six separate SVM models – one for each site. Model II comprises of two subparts: (a) data from all six sites used in model I is combined and a single SVM model is developed and tested on same sites and (b) a single model is developed using data from six sites (same as model II-A) but this model is tested on four separate sites not used to train the model. Model I shows satisfactory results, and the SM estimates are in good agreement with the estimates from VIC model. The SM estimate correlation coefficients range from 0.34 to 0.77 with RMSE less than 2% at all the selected sites. A probabilistic absolute error between the VIC SM and modeled SM is computed for all models. For model I, the results indicate that 80% of the SM estimates have an absolute error of less than 5%, whereas for model II-A and II-B, 80% and 60% of the SM estimates have an error less than 10% and 15%, respectively. SVM model is also trained and tested for measured soil moisture in the LCRB. Results with RMSE, MAE and R of 2.01, 1.97, and 0.57, respectively show that the SVM model is able to capture the variability in measured soil moisture. Results from the SVM modeling are compared with the estimates obtained from feed forward-back propagation Artificial Neural Network model (ANN) and Multivariate Linear Regression model (MLR); and show that SVM model performs better for soil moisture estimation than ANN and MLR models.


Environmental Monitoring | Geographic Information Sciences | Soil Science