The Earth's surface is an almost perfect sphere. Deviations from its spherical shape are less than 0,4% of its radius and essentially arise from its rotation. All equipotential surfaces are nearly spherical, too. In consequence, multiscale modelling of geoscientifically relevant data on the sphere involving rotational symmetry of the trial functions used for the approximation plays an important role. In this paper we deal with isotropic kernel functions showing local support and (one-dimensional) polynomial structure (briefly called isotropic finite elements) for reconstructing square--integrable functions on the sphere. Essential tool is the concept of multiresolution analysis by virtue of the spherical up function. The main result is a tree algorithm in terms of (low--order) isotropic finite elements.
A new class of locally supported radial basis functions on the (unit) sphere is introduced by forming an infinite number of convolutions of ''isotropic finite elements''. The resulting up functions show useful properties: They are locally supported and are infinitely often differentiable. The main properties of these kernels are studied in detail. In particular, the development of a multiresolution analysis within the reference space of square--integrable functions over the sphere is given. Altogether, the paper presents a mathematically significant and numerically efficient introduction to multiscale approximation by locally supported radial basis functions on the sphere.