Analysis: Reflections on the Blue Planet

To better engage you on critical Earth science topics, NEO launched a new web-based analysis tool. This Analysis Blog explores NEO data sets used in ClimateBits: Albedo. Albedo is the fraction of incoming solar energy that is immediately reflected back to space.

Note that these examples are intended for curious people looking for hands-on Earth data exploration. Primary scientific research will require additional analyses through other methods. For the basics on how to use the NEO tool, see ‘Analysis tool in 10 easy steps’.

Reflected shortwave radiation

Categorized under ‘Energy’, maps of reflected shortwave radiation show the amount of solar or shortwave energy (in Watts per square meter) reflected by the Earth. These are CERES observations combined with MODIS measurements, available since July, 2006. Brighter colors indicate more reflection while dark blue indicates the least reflection. The brightest, most reflective regions are associated with clouds, snow and ice. Because clouds move quickly, they are best observed in daily maps. The 8 day and monthly composites mute transient weather patterns. More persistent features, such as polar ice caps, can be observed and compared at longer time increments. The least reflective regions are dark surfaces without cloud cover, such as forests and the ocean. The poles are dark during their winters because of the absence of sunlight then.

Reflected Shortwave Radiation (in Watts per square meter). The pale green to white regions show where more sunlight is reflected; dark blue regions are where the least sunlight is reflected.

Land albedo

Categorized under ‘Energy’ as well as ‘Land’, maps of albedo show how reflective land surfaces are from 0, meaning no reflection, to 0.9, indicating nearly all incoming solar energy is reflected. These maps are derived from MODIS measurements, available since February, 2000 at 16 day and monthly composites. Dark blue indicates the least reflection and white indicates the most. Black areas are missing data – over the ocean or due to cloud cover or lack of sunlight.

Land albedo scales from 0 (dark blue) meaning no incoming sunlight reflected to 0.9 (white) meaning almost all sunlight reflected (1 would be all). Black areas mean “no data,” either over ocean or because persistent cloudiness prevented a view of the land surface. Notice the highest albedos are due to ice caps, glaciers and snow-cover.

Comparison: different surfaces

Africa is a continent with the Sahara Desert north of savannah grasslands and then forests with thick vegetation. To see how different land cover impacts albedo and reflected radiation, we compare them during January, 2017. We limit our analysis to the area delineated by the yellow box (below, left). Use Data Probe and Plot transect to explore the whole geographic area, comparing and contrasting values of albedo and reflected radiation.

Left: Map of the region selected as the yellow box. Right: a comparison of albedo and reflected radiation from north to south along the transect (white line).

Notice that albedo and reflected radiation are highest over the Sahara Desert, except for the dark spot associated with the Tibesti mountains in northern Chad. Albedo and reflected radiation decline over the savannah grasslands, which are darker. Farther south, over the tropical rain forest, however, reflected radiation starts to rise while albedo continues to decline – likely due to evapotranspiration that promotes cloud formation.

Left: region selected (white box). Right: scatter plot of albedo versus reflected radiation within that region.

A scatter plot of the transition zone between desert and savannah demonstrates the direct relationship between albedo and reflected radiation.



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