This picture of the Andes Mountains between Chile and Argentina in South America was taken from the International Space Station in December 2000. Glaciers and snow top many of the high mountain peaks. Lakes in the valleys between mountains collect the water that melts from the snow and ice each spring and summer. Scientists have found that the smaller glaciers in this area are melting quickly as the Earth becomes warmer.
Click on image for full size
NASA Earth Observatory


This picture of the Earth surface was taken from high above the planet in the International Space Station. In this view from above, we can see that there are lots of different things that cover the Earth. All those things - like soil, rocks, water, forests, snow, and sand - look different from above. Different materials like these have different ways of dealing with the solar energy that gets to our planet. Dark colored surfaces, like ocean and forests, reflect very little of the solar energy that gets to them. Light colored parts of the planet surface, like snow and ice, reflect almost all of the solar energy that gets to them.

The amount of energy reflected by a surface is called albedo. Albedo is measured on a scale from zero to one (or sometimes as a percent).

  • Very dark colors have an albedo close to zero (or close to 0%).
  • Very light colors have an albedo close to one (or close to 100%).

Because much of the land surface and oceans are dark in color, they have a low albedo. They absorb a large amount of the solar energy that gets to them, reflecting only a small fraction of it. Forests have low albedo, near 0.15. Snow and ice, on the other hand, are very light in color. They have very high albedo, as high as 0.8 or 0.9, and reflect most of the solar energy that gets to them, absorbing very little.

The albedo of all these different surfaces combined is called the planetary albedo. Earth's planetary albedo is about 0.31. That means that about a third of the solar energy that gets to Earth is reflected out to space and about two thirds is absorbed. The Moon's albedo is 0.07, meaning that only 7% of the energy that gets to it is reflected. The albedo of distant planets, so distant that they are difficult to study with telescopes, can be a very helpful to scientists trying to figure out what a planet is made of.

Earth's climate depends on the amount of solar radiation that is reflected back out to space and the amount that is absorbed. If Earth's climate is colder and there is more snow and ice on the planet, more solar radiation is reflected back out to space and the climate gets even cooler. On the other hand, when warming causes snow and ice to melt, darker colored Earth surface and ocean are exposed and less solar energy is reflected out to space causing even more warming. This is known as the ice-albedo feedback.

Clouds have an important effect on albedo too. They have a high albedo and reflect a large amount of solar energy out to space. Different types of clouds reflect different amounts of solar energy. If there were no clouds, Earth's average albedo would drop by half.


Last modified May 13, 2011 by Jennifer Bergman.

You might also be interested in:

Traveling Nitrogen Classroom Activity Kit

Check out our online store - minerals, fossils, books, activities, jewelry, and household items!...more

The Cryosphere

Frozen water is found in many different places on Earth. Snow blankets the ground at mid and high latitudes during winter. Sea ice and icebergs float in the chilly waters of polar oceans. Ice shelves fringe...more

What Is Climate?

The climate where you live is called regional climate. It is the average weather in a place over more than thirty years. To describe the regional climate of a place, people often tell what the temperatures...more

Ice-Albedo Feedback: How Melting Ice Causes More Ice to Melt

The sea ice that floats on the Arctic Ocean is covered with snow all winter. The snow-covered ice is bright white so it absorbs very little of the solar energy that gets to it. And during the Arctic winter,...more

Desert Dust Alters Ecology of Colorado Alpine Meadows

Dust blown into the San Juan Mountains of Colorado is causing snow to melt faster in the springtime. Scientists have found that this is changing how alpine plants that live on the high mountain tundra...more

Earth's Greenhouse Effect

Energy from the Sun that makes its way to the Earth’s surface can have trouble finding its way back out to space. This is because of a natural process called the greenhouse effect. Without the greenhouse...more

Dust-on-Snow: Spring Winds Can Bring More Snowmelt

Scientists are learning about how dust from wind storms is affecting the snow pack in Colorado. When the winds are right and the desert is dry, dust blows to the east from U.S. Southwest. When this happens,...more

Pollution Speeds up Snow Melt in Europe and Asia

Climate scientist Mark Flanner, an assistant professor at the University of Michigan led a study that looked into rates of springtime snow melt in Europe, Asia, and North America. The study found that...more

Windows to the Universe, a project of the National Earth Science Teachers Association, is sponsored in part is sponsored in part through grants from federal agencies (NASA and NOAA), and partnerships with affiliated organizations, including the American Geophysical Union, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Earth System Information Partnership, the American Meteorological Society, the National Center for Science Education, and TERC. The American Geophysical Union and the American Geosciences Institute are Windows to the Universe Founding Partners. NESTA welcomes new Institutional Affiliates in support of our ongoing programs, as well as collaborations on new projects. Contact NESTA for more information. NASA ESIP NCSE HHMI AGU AGI AMS NOAA