Albedo Effect

Astronomers define the reflectivity of an object in space using a term called albedo. This is the amount of electromagnetic radiation that reflects away, compared to the amount that gets absorbed. A perfectly reflective surface would get an albedo score of 1, while a completely dark object would have an albedo of 0. Of course, it’s not that black and white in nature, and all objects have an albedo score that ranges between 0 and 1.

Here on Earth, the albedo effect has a significant impact on our climate. The lower the albedo, the more radiation from the Sun that gets absorbed by the planet, and temperatures will rise. If the albedo is higher, and the Earth is more reflective, more of the radiation is returned to space, and the planet cools.

An example of this albedo effect is the snow temperature feedback. When you have a snow covered area, it reflects a lot of radiation. This is why you can get terrible sunburns when you’re skiing. But then when the snow covered area warms and melts, the albedo goes down. More sunlight is absorbed in the area and the temperatures increase. Climate scientists are concerned that global warming will cause the polar ice caps to melt. With these melting caps, dark ocean water will absorb more sunlight, and contribute even more to global warming.

Earth observation satellites are constantly measuring the Earth’s albedo using a suite of sensors, and the reflectivity of the planet can actually be measured through Earthshine – light from the Earth that reflects off the Moon.

Different parts of the Earth contribute to our planet’s overall albedo in different amounts. Trees are dark and have a low albedo, so removing trees might actually increase the albedo of an area; especially regions typically covered in snow during the winter.

Clouds can reflect sunlight, but they can also trap heat warming up the planet. At any time, about half the Earth is covered by clouds so their effect is significant.

Needless to say, the albedo effect is one of the most complicated factors in climate science, and scientists are working hard to develop better models to estimate its impact in the future.

We have written many articles about the albedo effect for Universe Today. Here’s an article discussing the albedo of the Earth, and how decreasing Earthshine could be tied to global warming.

There are some great resources out on the Internet as well. Check out this article from Scientific American Frontiers, and some cool photos of different colors of ice.

We have recorded a whole episode of Astronomy Cast just about the Earth. Listen to it here, Episode 51: Earth.

Reference:
Encyclopedia of Earth

Albedo of the Earth

The albedo of the Earth is 0.367.

That’s the simple answer, now here’s the more complex one. Astronomers use the term “albedo” to define the amount of light that an object in the Solar System reflects. For example, if a planet was perfectly shiny, it would have an albedo of 1.00; it would reflect 100% of the light that hit it. If a planet was perfectly dark, it would have an albedo of 0, and so it would reflect 0% of the light that struck it.

The object with the highest albedo in the Solar System is Saturn’s moon Enceladus, with an albedo of 99%. On the other hand, asteroids can have albedos as low as 4%. The Earth’s moon has an albedo of about 7%. Can you imagine if we had Enceladus for a moon? Now that would be bright.

The albedo of the Earth is very important because it helps define the temperature of the planet. Fresh snow has an albedo of 90%, while the ocean has a very low albedo; land areas range from 0.1 to 0.4.

NASA’s Terra and Aqua satellites are constantly measuring the albedo of the Earth with their MODIS instruments, to help detect any evidence that the albedo is changing over time.

We have written many articles about the Earth for Universe Today. Here’s an article about how scientists track Earthshine on the Moon. And here’s a more detailed article about the albedo of the Moon.

Want more resources on the Earth? Here’s a link to NASA’s Human Spaceflight page, and here’s NASA’s Visible Earth.

We have also recorded an episode of Astronomy Cast about Earth, as part of our tour through the Solar System – Episode 51: Earth.