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The percentage of diffusely reflected sunlight relative to various surface conditions Albedo-e hg.svg
The percentage of diffusely reflected sunlight relative to various surface conditions

Albedo ( /ælˈbd/ ; from Latin albedo 'whiteness') is the measure of the diffuse reflection of solar radiation out of the total solar radiation and measured on a scale from 0, corresponding to a black body that absorbs all incident radiation, to 1, corresponding to a body that reflects all incident radiation.


Surface albedo is defined as the ratio of radiosity Je to the irradiance Ee (flux per unit area) received by a surface. [1] The proportion reflected is not only determined by properties of the surface itself, but also by the spectral and angular distribution of solar radiation reaching the Earth's surface. [2] These factors vary with atmospheric composition, geographic location, and time (see position of the Sun). While bi-hemispherical reflectance is calculated for a single angle of incidence (i.e., for a given position of the Sun), albedo is the directional integration of reflectance over all solar angles in a given period. The temporal resolution may range from seconds (as obtained from flux measurements) to daily, monthly, or annual averages.

Unless given for a specific wavelength (spectral albedo), albedo refers to the entire spectrum of solar radiation. [3] Due to measurement constraints, it is often given for the spectrum in which most solar energy reaches the surface (between 0.3 and 3 μm). This spectrum includes visible light (0.4–0.7 μm), which explains why surfaces with a low albedo appear dark (e.g., trees absorb most radiation), whereas surfaces with a high albedo appear bright (e.g., snow reflects most radiation).

Albedo is an important concept in climatology, astronomy, and environmental management (e.g., as part of the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program for sustainable rating of buildings). The average albedo of the Earth from the upper atmosphere, its planetary albedo, is 30–35% because of cloud cover, but widely varies locally across the surface because of different geological and environmental features. [4]

The term albedo was introduced into optics by Johann Heinrich Lambert in his 1760 work Photometria .

Terrestrial albedo

Sample albedos
Fresh asphalt0.04 [5]
Open ocean0.06 [6]
Worn asphalt0.12 [5]
Conifer forest
0.08 [7] 0.09 to 0.15 [8]
Deciduous forest 0.15 to 0.18 [8]
Bare soil0.17 [9]
Green grass0.25 [9]
Desert sand0.40 [10]
New concrete0.55 [9]
Ocean ice0.50 to 0.70 [9]
Fresh snow0.80 [9]

Any albedo in visible light falls within a range of about 0.9 for fresh snow to about 0.04 for charcoal, one of the darkest substances. Deeply shadowed cavities can achieve an effective albedo approaching the zero of a black body. When seen from a distance, the ocean surface has a low albedo, as do most forests, whereas desert areas have some of the highest albedos among landforms. Most land areas are in an albedo range of 0.1 to 0.4. [11] The average albedo of Earth is about 0.3. [12] This is far higher than for the ocean primarily because of the contribution of clouds.

2003-2004 mean annual clear-sky and total-sky albedo Ceres 2003 2004 clear sky total sky albedo.png
2003–2004 mean annual clear-sky and total-sky albedo

Earth's surface albedo is regularly estimated via Earth observation satellite sensors such as NASA's MODIS instruments on board the Terra and Aqua satellites, and the CERES instrument on the Suomi NPP and JPSS. As the amount of reflected radiation is only measured for a single direction by satellite, not all directions, a mathematical model is used to translate a sample set of satellite reflectance measurements into estimates of directional-hemispherical reflectance and bi-hemispherical reflectance (e.g., [13] ). These calculations are based on the bidirectional reflectance distribution function (BRDF), which describes how the reflectance of a given surface depends on the view angle of the observer and the solar angle. BDRF can facilitate translations of observations of reflectance into albedo.

Earth's average surface temperature due to its albedo and the greenhouse effect is currently about 15 °C (59 °F). If Earth were frozen entirely (and hence be more reflective), the average temperature of the planet would drop below −40 °C (−40 °F). [14] If only the continental land masses became covered by glaciers, the mean temperature of the planet would drop to about 0 °C (32 °F). [15] In contrast, if the entire Earth was covered by water – a so-called ocean planet – the average temperature on the planet would rise to almost 27 °C (81 °F). [16]

In 2021, scientists reported that Earth dimmed by ~0.5% over two decades (1998-2017) as measured by earthshine using modern photometric techniques. This may have both been co-caused by climate change as well as a substantial increase in global warming. However, the link to climate change has not been explored to date and it is unclear whether or not this represents an ongoing trend. [17] [18]

White-sky, black-sky, and blue-sky albedo

For land surfaces, it has been shown that the albedo at a particular solar zenith angle θi can be approximated by the proportionate sum of two terms:

with being the proportion of direct radiation from a given solar angle, and being the proportion of diffuse illumination, the actual albedo (also called blue-sky albedo) can then be given as:

This formula is important because it allows the albedo to be calculated for any given illumination conditions from a knowledge of the intrinsic properties of the surface. [19]

Examples of terrestrial albedo effects


Albedo is not directly dependent on illumination because changing the amount of incoming light proportionally changes the amount of reflected light, except in circumstances where a change in illumination induces a change in the Earth's surface at that location (e.g. through melting of reflective ice). That said, albedo and illumination both vary by latitude. Albedo is highest near the poles and lowest in the subtropics, with a local maximum in the tropics. [20]

Insolation effects

The intensity of albedo temperature effects depends on the amount of albedo and the level of local insolation (solar irradiance); high albedo areas in the Arctic and Antarctic regions are cold due to low insolation, whereas areas such as the Sahara Desert, which also have a relatively high albedo, will be hotter due to high insolation. Tropical and sub-tropical rainforest areas have low albedo, and are much hotter than their temperate forest counterparts, which have lower insolation. Because insolation plays such a big role in the heating and cooling effects of albedo, high insolation areas like the tropics will tend to show a more pronounced fluctuation in local temperature when local albedo changes.[ citation needed ]

Arctic regions notably release more heat back into space than what they absorb, effectively cooling the Earth. This has been a concern since arctic ice and snow has been melting at higher rates due to higher temperatures, creating regions in the arctic that are notably darker (being water or ground which is darker color) and reflects less heat back into space. This feedback loop results in a reduced albedo effect. [21]

Climate and weather

Albedo affects climate by determining how much radiation a planet absorbs. [22] The uneven heating of Earth from albedo variations between land, ice, or ocean surfaces can drive weather.

Albedo–temperature feedback

When an area's albedo changes due to snowfall, a snow–temperature feedback results. A layer of snowfall increases local albedo, reflecting away sunlight, leading to local cooling. In principle, if no outside temperature change affects this area (e.g., a warm air mass), the raised albedo and lower temperature would maintain the current snow and invite further snowfall, deepening the snow–temperature feedback. However, because local weather is dynamic due to the change of seasons, eventually warm air masses and a more direct angle of sunlight (higher insolation) cause melting. When the melted area reveals surfaces with lower albedo, such as grass, soil, or ocean, the effect is reversed: the darkening surface lowers albedo, increasing local temperatures, which induces more melting and thus reducing the albedo further, resulting in still more heating.


Snow albedo is highly variable, ranging from as high as 0.9 for freshly fallen snow, to about 0.4 for melting snow, and as low as 0.2 for dirty snow. [23] Over Antarctica snow albedo averages a little more than 0.8. If a marginally snow-covered area warms, snow tends to melt, lowering the albedo, and hence leading to more snowmelt because more radiation is being absorbed by the snowpack (the ice–albedo positive feedback).

Just as fresh snow has a higher albedo than does dirty snow, the albedo of snow-covered sea ice is far higher than that of sea water. Sea water absorbs more solar radiation than would the same surface covered with reflective snow. When sea ice melts, either due to a rise in sea temperature or in response to increased solar radiation from above, the snow-covered surface is reduced, and more surface of sea water is exposed, so the rate of energy absorption increases. The extra absorbed energy heats the sea water, which in turn increases the rate at which sea ice melts. As with the preceding example of snowmelt, the process of melting of sea ice is thus another example of a positive feedback. [24] Both positive feedback loops have long been recognized as important for global warming.[ citation needed ]

Cryoconite, powdery windblown dust containing soot, sometimes reduces albedo on glaciers and ice sheets. [25]

The dynamical nature of albedo in response to positive feedback, together with the effects of small errors in the measurement of albedo, can lead to large errors in energy estimates. Because of this, in order to reduce the error of energy estimates, it is important to measure the albedo of snow-covered areas through remote sensing techniques rather than applying a single value for albedo over broad regions.[ citation needed ]

Small-scale effects

Albedo works on a smaller scale, too. In sunlight, dark clothes absorb more heat and light-coloured clothes reflect it better, thus allowing some control over body temperature by exploiting the albedo effect of the colour of external clothing. [26]

Solar photovoltaic effects

Albedo can affect the electrical energy output of solar photovoltaic devices. For example, the effects of a spectrally responsive albedo are illustrated by the differences between the spectrally weighted albedo of solar photovoltaic technology based on hydrogenated amorphous silicon (a-Si:H) and crystalline silicon (c-Si)-based compared to traditional spectral-integrated albedo predictions. Research showed impacts of over 10%. [27] More recently, the analysis was extended to the effects of spectral bias due to the specular reflectivity of 22 commonly occurring surface materials (both human-made and natural) and analyzes the albedo effects on the performance of seven photovoltaic materials covering three common photovoltaic system topologies: industrial (solar farms), commercial flat rooftops and residential pitched-roof applications. [28]


Because forests generally have a low albedo, (the majority of the ultraviolet and visible spectrum is absorbed through photosynthesis), some scientists have suggested that greater heat absorption by trees could offset some of the carbon benefits of afforestation (or offset the negative climate impacts of deforestation). In the case of evergreen forests with seasonal snow cover albedo reduction may be great enough for deforestation to cause a net cooling effect. [29] Trees also impact climate in extremely complicated ways through evapotranspiration. The water vapor causes cooling on the land surface, causes heating where it condenses, acts a strong greenhouse gas, and can increase albedo when it condenses into clouds. [30] Scientists generally treat evapotranspiration as a net cooling impact, and the net climate impact of albedo and evapotranspiration changes from deforestation depends greatly on local climate. [31]

In seasonally snow-covered zones, winter albedos of treeless areas are 10% to 50% higher than nearby forested areas because snow does not cover the trees as readily. Deciduous trees have an albedo value of about 0.15 to 0.18 whereas coniferous trees have a value of about 0.09 to 0.15. [8] Variation in summer albedo across both forest types is associated with maximum rates of photosynthesis because plants with high growth capacity display a greater fraction of their foliage for direct interception of incoming radiation in the upper canopy. [32] The result is that wavelengths of light not used in photosynthesis are more likely to be reflected back to space rather than being absorbed by other surfaces lower in the canopy.

Studies by the Hadley Centre have investigated the relative (generally warming) effect of albedo change and (cooling) effect of carbon sequestration on planting forests. They found that new forests in tropical and midlatitude areas tended to cool; new forests in high latitudes (e.g., Siberia) were neutral or perhaps warming. [29]


Reflectivity of smooth water at 20 degC (68 degF) (refractive index=1.333) Water reflectivity.jpg
Reflectivity of smooth water at 20 °C (68 °F) (refractive index=1.333)

Water reflects light very differently from typical terrestrial materials. The reflectivity of a water surface is calculated using the Fresnel equations.

At the scale of the wavelength of light even wavy water is always smooth so the light is reflected in a locally specular manner (not diffusely). The glint of light off water is a commonplace effect of this. At small angles of incident light, waviness results in reduced reflectivity because of the steepness of the reflectivity-vs.-incident-angle curve and a locally increased average incident angle. [33]

Although the reflectivity of water is very low at low and medium angles of incident light, it becomes very high at high angles of incident light such as those that occur on the illuminated side of Earth near the terminator (early morning, late afternoon, and near the poles). However, as mentioned above, waviness causes an appreciable reduction. Because light specularly reflected from water does not usually reach the viewer, water is usually considered to have a very low albedo in spite of its high reflectivity at high angles of incident light.

Note that white caps on waves look white (and have high albedo) because the water is foamed up, so there are many superimposed bubble surfaces which reflect, adding up their reflectivities. Fresh 'black' ice exhibits Fresnel reflection. Snow on top of this sea ice increases the albedo to 0.9. [34]


Cloud albedo has substantial influence over atmospheric temperatures. Different types of clouds exhibit different reflectivity, theoretically ranging in albedo from a minimum of near 0 to a maximum approaching 0.8. "On any given day, about half of Earth is covered by clouds, which reflect more sunlight than land and water. Clouds keep Earth cool by reflecting sunlight, but they can also serve as blankets to trap warmth." [35]

Albedo and climate in some areas are affected by artificial clouds, such as those created by the contrails of heavy commercial airliner traffic. [36] A study following the burning of the Kuwaiti oil fields during Iraqi occupation showed that temperatures under the burning oil fires were as much as 10 °C (18 °F) colder than temperatures several miles away under clear skies. [37]

Aerosol effects

Aerosols (very fine particles/droplets in the atmosphere) have both direct and indirect effects on Earth's radiative balance. The direct (albedo) effect is generally to cool the planet; the indirect effect (the particles act as cloud condensation nuclei and thereby change cloud properties) is less certain. [38] As per Spracklen et al. [39] the effects are:

  • Aerosol direct effect. Aerosols directly scatter and absorb radiation. The scattering of radiation causes atmospheric cooling, whereas absorption can cause atmospheric warming.
  • Aerosol indirect effect. Aerosols modify the properties of clouds through a subset of the aerosol population called cloud condensation nuclei. Increased nuclei concentrations lead to increased cloud droplet number concentrations, which in turn leads to increased cloud albedo, increased light scattering and radiative cooling (first indirect effect), but also leads to reduced precipitation efficiency and increased lifetime of the cloud (second indirect effect).

In extremely polluted cities like Delhi, aerosol pollutants influence local weather and induce an urban cool island effect during the day. [40]

Black carbon

Another albedo-related effect on the climate is from black carbon particles. The size of this effect is difficult to quantify: the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates that the global mean radiative forcing for black carbon aerosols from fossil fuels is +0.2 W m−2, with a range +0.1 to +0.4 W m−2. [41] Black carbon is a bigger cause of the melting of the polar ice cap in the Arctic than carbon dioxide due to its effect on the albedo. [42] [ failed verification ]

Human activities

Human activities (e.g., deforestation, farming, and urbanization) change the albedo of various areas around the globe. However, quantification of this effect on the global scale is difficult, further study is required to determine anthropogenic effects. [43]

Astronomical albedo

In astronomy, the term albedo can be defined in several different ways, depending upon the application and the wavelength of electromagnetic radiation involved.

Optical or visual albedo

The albedos of planets, satellites and minor planets such as asteroids can be used to infer much about their properties. The study of albedos, their dependence on wavelength, lighting angle ("phase angle"), and variation in time composes a major part of the astronomical field of photometry. For small and far objects that cannot be resolved by telescopes, much of what we know comes from the study of their albedos. For example, the absolute albedo can indicate the surface ice content of outer Solar System objects, the variation of albedo with phase angle gives information about regolith properties, whereas unusually high radar albedo is indicative of high metal content in asteroids.

Enceladus, a moon of Saturn, has one of the highest known optical albedos of any body in the Solar System, with an albedo of 0.99. Another notable high-albedo body is Eris, with an albedo of 0.96. [44] Many small objects in the outer Solar System [45] and asteroid belt have low albedos down to about 0.05. [46] A typical comet nucleus has an albedo of 0.04. [47] Such a dark surface is thought to be indicative of a primitive and heavily space weathered surface containing some organic compounds.

The overall albedo of the Moon is measured to be around 0.14, [48] but it is strongly directional and non-Lambertian, displaying also a strong opposition effect. [49] Although such reflectance properties are different from those of any terrestrial terrains, they are typical of the regolith surfaces of airless Solar System bodies.

Two common optical albedos that are used in astronomy are the (V-band) geometric albedo (measuring brightness when illumination comes from directly behind the observer) and the Bond albedo (measuring total proportion of electromagnetic energy reflected). Their values can differ significantly, which is a common source of confusion.

Mercury0.142 [50] 0.088 [51] or 0.068
Venus0.689 [50] 0.76 [52] or 0.77
Earth0.434 [50] 0.306 [53]
Mars0.170 [50] 0.250 [54]
Jupiter0.538 [50] 0.503±0.012 [55]
Saturn0.499 [50] 0.342 [56]
Uranus0.488 [50] 0.300 [57]
Neptune0.442 [50] 0.290 [58]

In detailed studies, the directional reflectance properties of astronomical bodies are often expressed in terms of the five Hapke parameters which semi-empirically describe the variation of albedo with phase angle, including a characterization of the opposition effect of regolith surfaces. One of these five parameters is yet another type of albedo called the single-scattering albedo. It is used to define scattering of electromagnetic waves on small particles. It depends on properties of the material (refractive index), the size of the particle, and the wavelength of the incoming radiation.

An important relationship between an object's astronomical (geometric) albedo, absolute magnitude and diameter is given by: [59]

where is the astronomical albedo, is the diameter in kilometers, and is the absolute magnitude.

Radar albedo

In planetary radar astronomy, a microwave (or radar) pulse is transmitted toward a planetary target (e.g. Moon, asteroid, etc.) and the echo from the target is measured. In most instances, the transmitted pulse is circularly polarized and the received pulse is measured in the same sense of polarization as the transmitted pulse (SC) and the opposite sense (OC). [60] [61] The echo power is measured in terms of radar cross-section, , , or (total power, SC + OC) and is equal to the cross-sectional area of a metallic sphere (perfect reflector) at the same distance as the target that would return the same echo power. [60]

Those components of the received echo that return from first-surface reflections (as from a smooth or mirror-like surface) are dominated by the OC component as there is a reversal in polarization upon reflection. If the surface is rough at the wavelength scale or there is significant penetration into the regolith, there will be a significant SC component in the echo caused by multiple scattering. [61]

For most objects in the solar system, the OC echo dominates and the most commonly reported radar albedo parameter is the (normalized) OC radar albedo (often shortened to radar albedo): [60]

where the denominator is the effective cross-sectional area of the target object with mean radius, . A smooth metallic sphere would have .

Radar albedos of Solar System objects

Moon0.06 [60]
Mercury0.05 [60]
Venus0.10 [60]
Mars0.06 [60]
Avg S-type asteroid0.14 [62]
Avg C-type asteroid0.13 [62]
Avg M-type asteroid0.26 [63]
Comet P/2005 JQ50.02 [64]

The values reported for the Moon, Mercury, Mars, Venus, and Comet P/2005 JQ5 are derived from the total (OC+SC) radar albedo reported in those references.

Relationship to surface bulk density

In the event that most of the echo is from first surface reflections ( or so), the OC radar albedo is a first-order approximation of the Fresnel reflection coefficient (aka reflectivity) [61] and can be used to estimate the bulk density of a planetary surface to a depth of a meter or so (a few wavelengths of the radar wavelength which is typically at the decimeter scale) using the following empirical relationships: [65]


See also

Related Research Articles

Greenhouse effect Atmospheric phenomenon causing planetary warming

The greenhouse effect is a process that occurs when energy from a planet's sun goes through its atmosphere and warms the planet's surface, but the atmosphere prevents the heat from returning directly to space, resulting in a warmer planet. Light arriving from our Sun passes through Earth's atmosphere and warms its surface. The warmed surface then radiates heat, which is absorbed by greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide. Without the natural greenhouse effect, Earth's average temperature would be well below freezing. Current human-caused increases in greenhouse gases trap greater amounts of heat, causing the Earth to grow warmer over time.

Radiation pressure Pressure exerted upon any surface exposed to electromagnetic radiation

Radiation pressure is the mechanical pressure exerted upon any surface due to the exchange of momentum between the object and the electromagnetic field. This includes the momentum of light or electromagnetic radiation of any wavelength that is absorbed, reflected, or otherwise emitted by matter on any scale. The associated force is called the radiation pressure force, or sometimes just the force of light.

Climate model Quantitative methods used to simulate climate

Numerical climate models use quantitative methods to simulate the interactions of the important drivers of climate, including atmosphere, oceans, land surface and ice. They are used for a variety of purposes from study of the dynamics of the climate system to projections of future climate. Climate models may also be qualitative models and also narratives, largely descriptive, of possible futures.

Cloud albedo

Cloud albedo is a measure of the albedo or reflectivity of a cloud. Clouds regulate the amount of solar radiation absorbed by a planet and its solar surface irradiance. Generally, increased cloud cover correlates to a higher albedo and a lower absorption of solar energy. Cloud albedo strongly influences the Earth's energy budget, accounting for approximately half of Earth's albedo. Cloud albedo depends on the total mass of water, the size and shape of the droplets or particles and their distribution in space. Thick clouds reflect a large amount of incoming solar radiation, translating to a high albedo. Thin clouds tend to transmit more solar radiation and, therefore, have a low albedo. Changes in cloud albedo caused by variations in cloud properties have a significant effect on global climate.

Cloud forcing

In meteorology, cloud forcing, cloud radiative forcing (CRF) or cloud radiative effect (CRE) is the difference between the radiation budget components for average cloud conditions and cloud-free conditions. Much of the interest in cloud forcing relates to its role as a feedback process in the present period of global warming.

Stefan–Boltzmann law Physical law on the emissive power of black body

The Stefan–Boltzmann law describes the power radiated from a black body in terms of its temperature. Specifically, the Stefan–Boltzmann law states that the total energy radiated per unit surface area of a black body across all wavelengths per unit time is directly proportional to the fourth power of the black body's thermodynamic temperature T:

Thermal radiation Electromagnetic radiation generated by the thermal motion of particles

Thermal radiation is electromagnetic radiation generated by the thermal motion of particles in matter. Thermal radiation is generated when heat from the movement of charges in the material is converted to electromagnetic radiation. All matter with a temperature greater than absolute zero emits thermal radiation. Particle motion results in charge-acceleration or dipole oscillation which produces electromagnetic radiation.

Global dimming Reduction in the amount of sunlight reaching Earths surface

Global dimming is the reduction in the amount of global direct irradiance at the Earth's surface that has been observed since systematic measurements began in the 1950s. The effect varies by location, but worldwide it has been estimated to be of the order of a 4–20% reduction. However, after discounting an anomaly caused by the eruption of Mount Pinatubo in 1991, a very slight reversal in the overall trend has been observed.

Radiative forcing Difference between solar irradiance absorbed by the Earth and energy radiated back to space

Radiative forcing is the change in energy flux in the atmosphere caused by natural or anthropogenic factors of climate change as measured by watts / metre2. It is a scientific concept used to quantify and compare the external drivers of change to Earth's energy balance. System feedbacks and internal variability are related concepts, encompassing other factors that also influence the direction and magnitude of imbalance.

Black-body radiation Thermal electromagnetic radiation

Black-body radiation is the thermal electromagnetic radiation within, or surrounding, a body in thermodynamic equilibrium with its environment, emitted by a black body. It has a specific, continuous, spectrum of wavelengths, inversely related to intensity, that depend only on the body's temperature, which is assumed, for the sake of calculations and theory, to be uniform and constant.

Earths energy budget Accounting of the energy flows which determine Earths surface temperature and drive its climate

Earth's energy budget accounts for the balance between the energy that Earth receives from the Sun and the energy the Earth loses back into outer space. Smaller energy sources, such as Earth's internal heat, are taken into consideration, but make a tiny contribution compared to solar energy. The energy budget also accounts for how energy moves through the climate system. Because the Sun heats the equatorial tropics more than the polar regions, received solar irradiance is unevenly distributed. As the energy seeks equilibrium across the planet, it drives interactions in Earth's climate system, i.e., Earth's water, ice, atmosphere, rocky crust, and all living things. The result is Earth's climate.

The effective temperature of a body such as a star or planet is the temperature of a black body that would emit the same total amount of electromagnetic radiation. Effective temperature is often used as an estimate of a body's surface temperature when the body's emissivity curve is not known.

Solar irradiance Measurement of electromagnetic radiation

Solar irradiance is the power per unit area received from the Sun in the form of electromagnetic radiation as measured in the wavelength range of the measuring instrument. The solar irradiance is measured in watt per square metre (W/m2) in SI units. Solar irradiance is often integrated over a given time period in order to report the radiant energy emitted into the surrounding environment during that time period. This integrated solar irradiance is called solar irradiation, solar exposure, solar insolation, or insolation.

For most numbered asteroids, almost nothing is known apart from a few physical parameters and orbital elements. Some physical characteristics can only be estimated. The physical data is determined by making certain standard assumptions.

In astronomy, the geometric albedo of a celestial body is the ratio of its actual brightness as seen from the light source to that of an idealized flat, fully reflecting, diffusively scattering (Lambertian) disk with the same cross-section.

The Bond albedo, named after the American astronomer George Phillips Bond (1825–1865), who originally proposed it, is the fraction of power in the total electromagnetic radiation incident on an astronomical body that is scattered back out into space.

The surface of the Sun radiates light and heat at approximately 5,500 °C. The Earth is much cooler and so radiates heat back away from itself at much longer wavelengths, mostly in the infrared range. The idealized greenhouse model is based on the fact that certain gases in the Earth's atmosphere, including carbon dioxide and water vapour, are transparent to the high-frequency, high-energy solar radiation, but are much more opaque to the lower frequency infrared radiation leaving the surface of the earth. Thus heat is easily let in, but is partially trapped by these gases as it tries to leave. Rather than get hotter and hotter, Kirchhoff's law of thermal radiation says that the gases of the atmosphere also have to re-emit the infrared energy that they absorb, and they do so, also at long infrared wavelengths, both upwards into space as well as downwards back towards the Earth's surface. In the long-term, thermal equilibrium is reached when all the heat energy arriving on the planet is leaving again at the same rate. In this idealized model, the greenhouse gases cause the surface of the planet to be warmer than it would be without them, in order for the required amount of heat energy finally to be radiated out into space from the top of the atmosphere.

Ice–albedo feedback

Ice–albedo feedback is a positive feedback climate process where a change in the area of ice caps, glaciers, and sea ice alters the albedo and surface temperature of a planet. Ice is very reflective, therefore some of the solar energy is reflected back to space. Ice–albedo feedback plays an important role in global climate change. For instance, at higher latitudes, warmer temperatures melt the ice sheets. However, if warm temperatures decrease the ice cover and the area is replaced by water or land, the albedo would decrease. This increases the amount of solar energy absorbed, leading to more warming. The effect has mostly been discussed in terms of the recent trend of declining Arctic sea ice. The change in albedo acts to reinforce the initial alteration in ice area leading to more warming. Warming tends to decrease ice cover and hence decrease the albedo, increasing the amount of solar energy absorbed and leading to more warming. In the geologically recent past, the ice–albedo positive feedback has played a major role in the advances and retreats of the Pleistocene ice sheets. Inversely, cooler temperatures increase ice, which increases albedo, leading to more cooling.

The planetary equilibrium temperature is a theoretical temperature that a planet would be if it were a black body being heated only by its parent star. In this model, the presence or absence of an atmosphere is irrelevant, as the equilibrium temperature is calculated purely from a balance with incident stellar energy.

Schwarzschild's equation is used to calculate radiative transfer – energy transfer – through a medium in local thermodynamic equilibrium that both absorbs and emits electromagnetic radiation.


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