Temporal Resolution

In addition to spatial, spectral, and radiometric resolution, the concept of temporal resolution is also important to consider in a remote sensing system. We alluded to this idea in section 2.2 when we discussed the concept of revisit period, which refers to the length of time it takes for a satellite to complete one entire orbit cycle. The revisit period of a satellite sensor is usually several days. Therefore the absolute temporal resolution of a remote sensing system to image the exact same area at the same viewing angle a second time is equal to this period. However, because of some degree of overlap in the imaging swaths of adjacent orbits for most satellites and the increase in this overlap with increasing latitude, some areas of the Earth tend to be re-imaged more frequently. Also, some satellite systems are able to point their sensors to image the same area between different satellite passes separated by periods from one to five days. Thus, the actual temporal resolution of a sensor depends on a variety of factors, including the satellite/sensor capabilities, the swath overlap, and latitude.

Graphic showing two satellites pointing their sensors to image the same area

The ability to collect imagery of the same area of the Earth's surface at different periods of time is one of the most important elements for applying remote sensing data. Spectral characteristics of features may change over time and these changes can be detected by collecting and comparing multi-temporal imagery. For example, during the growing season, most species of vegetation are in a continual state of change and our ability to monitor those subtle changes using remote sensing is dependent on when and how frequently we collect imagery. By imaging on a continuing basis at different times we are able to monitor the changes that take place on the Earth's surface, whether they are naturally occurring (such as changes in natural vegetation cover or flooding) or induced by humans (such as urban development or deforestation). The time factor in imaging is important when:

  • persistent clouds offer limited clear views of the Earth's surface (often in the tropics)
  • short-lived phenomena (floods, oil slicks, etc.) need to be imaged
  • multi-temporal comparisons are required (e.g. the spread of a forest disease from one year to the next)
  • the changing appearance of a feature over time can be used to distinguish it from near-similar features (wheat / maize)