How altimetry works

Altimetry satellites basically determine the distance from the satellite to a target surface by measuring the satellite-to-surface round-trip time of a radar pulse. However, this is not the only measurement made in the process, and a lot of other information can be extracted from altimetry.

The magnitude and shape of the echoes (or waveforms) also contain information about the characteristics of the surface which caused the reflection. The best results are obtained over the ocean, which is spatially homogeneous, and has a surface which conforms with known statistics. Surfaces which are not homogeneous, which contain discontinuities or significant slopes, such as some ice, rivers or land surfaces, make accurate interpretation more difficult.