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Last Updated: December 31, 1969

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albedo - Encyclopedia of Earth

Albedo is known as surface reflectivity of sun’s radiation. The term has

its origins from a Latin word albus, meaning “white”. It is quantified as
the proportion, or percentage of solar radiation of all wavelengths
reflected by a body or surface to the amount incident upon it. An ideal
white body has an albedo of 100% and an ideal black body, 0%. The
typical amounts of solar radiation reflected from various objects are
shown in Table 1. Albedo values can range between 3% for water at small
zenith angles to over 95% for fresh snow. On average the Earth and its
atmosphere typically reflect about 4% and 26%, respectively, of the sun’s
incoming radiation back to space over the course of one year. As a
result, the earth-atmosphere system has a combined albedo of about
30%, a number highly dependent on the local surface makeup, cover,
and cloud distribution.
Surface reflectance values exhibit large geographic variation (Figure 1).
Mean annual albedo values differ considerably between the equator and
the poles, largely due to the presence of snow and ice-covered surfaces Figure 1: Mean annual surface albedo values. (Source:
along with cloudy skies in high latitudes, which greatly increases albedo
values in those areas. Atmospheric reflectance principally varies with
dust concentration, the zenith angle of the Sun, and the type and/or
amount of cloud cover. Well-developed convective clouds reflect up to
90% of incident solar energy, making thick clouds appear bright from
space. As the characteristics of a surface change from one season to
another, so do its reflectance properties. This fact is most evident
throughout the high latitudes (Figures 2 & 3), where snow cover and ice
extent reach maximum values during the cold seasons, significantly
increasing the surface reflectance values. Melting in the spring exposes
bare soils that absorb a significantly greater portion of the incoming solar
radiation, decreasing the albedo values.
The proportion of absorbed, emitted, and reflected incoming solar
radiation steers the Earth's climate system causing fluctuations in
temperature, winds, ocean currents, and precipitation. The climate
system remains in equilibrium as long as the amount of absorbed solar
radiation is in balance with the amount of terrestrial radiation emitted
back to space. Earth's albedo values are very important in shaping local
and global climates through the radiation budget, determined as the
difference between the amount of absorbed shortwave radiation (input)
and the outgoing longwave radiation (output). For instance, clouds control
the amount of energy that may reach the Earth’s surface. Since mean
cloudiness varies geographically with lowest values observed in the
subtropics and highest values in the mid- to high-latitudes, the variation of
surface reflectance has a significant impact on the distribution of
absorbed solar radiation at the surface. Approximately half of the incident
Table 1. Reflectivity values of various surfaces.
solar energy is absorbed by the Earth's surface. This energy is then
used to heat the land and oceans and drive the hydrologic cycle.
Surface reflectance has been derived through the use of satellites and
remote sensing technology. The International Satellite Cloud Climatology
Project (ISCCP) established as part of the World Climate Research
Programme (WCRP) has been collecting surface and atmospheric
reflectance data since 1983. A traditional technique for estimating the
Earth's albedo is observation of the moon's ashgrey light—earthlight
reflected from its dark hemisphere.
Further Reading
Ahrens, C. D. 2006. Meteorology Today. An Introduction to
Weather, Climate, and the Environment. Eighth Edition.
Thompson, Brooks/Cole. United States. 537 pp. ISBN:
Gurneym R. J., Foster, J. L., and Parkinson, C. L. 1993. Atlas
of Satellite Observations Related to Global Change.
Cambridge University Press. Great Britain. 470 pp. ISBN:
International Satellite Cloud Climatology Project (ISCCP) Figure 2: Mean winter (DJF) surface albedo values. (Source:
Oke, T.R. 1992. Boundary Layer Climates. Second Edition.
Routledge. New York. 435 pp. ISBN: 0415043190
Schiffer, R.A., and Rossow, W.B. 1983. The International
Satellite Cloud Climatology Project (ISCCP): The First Project
of the World Climate Research Programme. Bulletin of the

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albedo - Encyclopedia of Earth

American Meteorological Society, 64:779-784.

Dagmar Budikova (Lead Author); Mryka Hall-Beyer and Galal Hassan Galal Hussein (Topic
Editor);. 2010. "Albedo." In: Encyclopedia of Earth. Eds. Cutler J. Cleveland (Washington, D.C.:
Environmental Information Coalition, National Council for Science and the Environment). [First
published in the Encyclopedia of Earth November 21, 2006; Last revised January 24, 2010;
Retrieved September 9, 2010]<>

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