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Shortwave solar radiation is an important component of the surface energy balance and provides the principal source of energy for terrestrial ecosystems. This paper presents a machine learning approach in the form of a random forest (RF) model for estimating daily downward solar radiation flux at the land surface over complex terrain using MODIS (MODerate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer) remote sensing data. The model-building technique makes use of a unique network of 16 solar flux measurements in the semi-arid Reynolds Creek Experimental Watershed and Critical Zone Observatory, in southwest Idaho, USA. Based on a composite RF model built on daily observations from all 16 sites in the watershed, the model simulation of downward solar radiation matches well with the observation data (r2 = 0.96). To evaluate model performance, RF models were built from 12 of 16 sites selected at random and validated against the observations at the remaining four sites. Overall root mean square errors (RMSE), bias, and mean absolute error (MAE) are small (range: 37.17 W/m2-81.27 W/m2, -48.31 W/m2-15.67 W/m2, and 26.56 W/m2-63.77 W/m2, respectively). When extrapolated to the entire watershed, spatiotemporal patterns of solar flux are largely consistent with expected trends in this watershed. We also explored significant predictors of downward solar flux in order to reveal important properties and processes controlling downward solar radiation. Based on the composite RF model built on all 16 sites, the three most important predictors to estimate downward solar radiation include the black sky albedo (BSA) near infrared band (0.858 μm), BSA visible band (0.3–0.7 μm), and clear day coverage. This study has important implications for improving the ability to derive downward solar radiation through a fusion of multiple remote sensing datasets and can potentially capture spatiotemporally varying trends in solar radiation that is useful for land surface hydrologic and terrestrial ecosystem modeling.

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This document was originally published in PLoS One by the Public Library of Science. This work is provided under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 license. Details regarding the use of this work can be found at: doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0180239