Alaska Satellite Facility
Delivering Remote Sensing Data Since 1991

How to Read SAR Images

Interpretation of synthetic aperture radar (SAR) images is not always straightforward, in part because of the non-intuitive, side-looking geometry.
Here are some general rules of thumb:

Synthetic aperture radar (SAR) image of ice on water

Regions of calm water and other smooth surfaces appear black (the radar reflects away from the spacecraft). In the ESA image to the right of eddies around islands in the Bering Sea (© ESA 1992), the shades of grey indicate both rough water and ice in various stages of formation.

Wind-roughened water can backscatter brightly when the resulting waves are close in size to the incident radar's wavelength.

Rough surfaces appear brighter, as they reflect the radar in all directions, and more of the energy is scattered back to the antenna. A rough surface backscatters even more brightly when it is wet.

  • Surface variations near the size of the radar's wavelength cause strong backscattering.
  • If the wavelength is a few centimeters long, dirt clods and leaves might backscatter brightly.
  • A longer wavelength would be more likely to scatter off boulders than dirt clods, or tree trunks rather than leaves.

Any slope leads to geometric distortion. Steeper angles lead to more extreme layover, where mountain tops appear to lay over their base. Layover appears bright.

Geometric distortions are corrected by doing terrain correction. ASF has terrain correction tutorials for both Sentinel and ERS, JERS, and RADARSAT. PALSAR RTC products are available already radiometrically terrain corrected.

Hills and other large-scale surface variations tend to appear bright on one side and dim on the other. (The side that appears bright was facing the synthetic aperture radar [SAR].) Where slopes are very steep, the dim side may be completely dark because no radar signal is returned at all. This is called shadow. Slope-influenced brightness is corrected by doing radiometric correction. ASF has tutorials which combine radiometric and terrain correction instructions.

Radar shadow occurs behind vertical
features or steep slopes where
the radar beam can't reach. Diagram
courtesy of Natural Resources Canada.

Radar shadow behind steep
slopes. Image courtesy of Natural
Resources Canada.

Various combinations of polarizations for transmitted and received signals have a large impact on the backscattering of the signal. The right choice of polarization can help emphasize particular topographic features.

Man-Made Structures
In urban areas it is at times challenging to determine the orbit direction. All buildings that are perfectly perpendicularly aligned to the flight direction show very bright returns.

Brooklyn neighborhoods such as Bedford
-Stuyvesant with north-south running streets 
show strong radar return, as the buildings are
oriented perpendicular to the imaging radar beam.
Closeup of Brooklyn street grid.

Due to the reflectivity and angular structure of buildings, bridges, and other human-made objects, these targets tend to behave as corner reflectors and show up as bright spots in a synthetic aperture radar (SAR) image. A particularly strong response—for example, from a corner reflector or ASF's receiving antenna—can look like a bright dot or a cross in a processed synthetic aperture radar (SAR) image.

ASF's DJR 9 corner reflector shows a bright return
amidst agricultural fields. Delta Junction, Alaska.

Natural Resources Canada - Radar Image Distortions
Natural Resources Canada - Image Interpretation Quiz 

Get SAR Data

Get SAR Data

Select and download SAR data online using Vertex.

Use the ASF API for downloading SAR data via a command line.