Advancing Satellite Precipitation Retrievals With Data Driven Approaches: Is Black Box Model Explainable?

Zhi Li, Yixin Wen, Mathias Schreier, Ali Behrangi, Yang Hong, Bjorn Lambrigtsen

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

8 Scopus citations


Satellite-based precipitation retrieval is an essential and long-standing scientific problem. With an increase of observational satellite data, the advances of data-driven approaches such as machine learning (ML)/deep learning (DL) are favored to deal with large data sets and potentially improve the accuracy of precipitation estimates. In this study, we took advantage of new technologies by wrapping up a ML/DL-based model pipeline (LinkNet segmentation + tree ensemble). This approach is applied to the Advanced Microwave Sounding Unit (AMSU) on National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration 18 and 19 flight, and compared with the MultiRadar MultiSensor. Four simulations were configured to examine the performance gain by incorporating three components: (1) precipitation identification, (2) nonlocal features, and (3) precipitation classification. More importantly, we examined the interpretability of the “black box” model to get a better understanding of the underlying physical connections. First, the results by this model pipeline suggest the advantages of the ML model by reducing the systematic error and instantaneous error to a factor of two. Second, identifying precipitation pixels helps to reduce the systematic error by 130%, and predicting precipitation classification benefits improved correlations by 32%. Last, channels at higher frequencies (beyond 150 GHz) are favored to identify precipitation regions, and also channels at 89 and 150 GHz are ranked as the two most important features to precipitation retrieval. This study explores the potentials of AMSU precipitation estimates with ML algorithms and provides means of interpreting the models to facilitate the better prediction of precipitation.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere2020EA001423
JournalEarth and Space Science
Issue number2
StatePublished - Feb 2021


  • deep learning
  • interpretable machine learning
  • precipitation estimation

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Environmental Science (miscellaneous)
  • Earth and Planetary Sciences(all)


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