The albedo is an important concept in climatology and astronomy. In climatology it is sometimes expressed as a percentage. Its value depends on the frequency of radiation considered: unqualified, it usually refers to some appropriate average across the spectrum of visible light. In general, the albedo depends on the direction and directional distribution of incoming radiation. Exceptions are Lambertian surfaces, which scatter radiation in all directions in a cosine function, so their albedo does not depend on the incoming distribution. In realistic cases, a bidirectional reflectance distribution function (BRDF) is required to characterize the scattering properties of a surface accurately, although albedos are a very useful first approximation.
| Conifer forest|
|0.08, 0.09 to 0.15|
|Deciduous trees||0.15 to 0.18|
Human activities have changed the albedo (via forest clearance and farming, for example) of various areas around the globe. However, quantification of this effect is difficult on the global scale.
The classic example of albedo effect is the snow-temperature feedback. If a snow covered area warms and the snow melts, the albedo decreases, more sunlight is absorbed, and the temperature tends to increase. The converse is true: if snow forms, a cooling cycle happens. The intensity of the albedo effect depends on the size of the change in albedo and the amount of insolation; for this reason it can be potentially very large in the tropics.
The Earth's surface albedo is regularly estimated via Earth observation satellite sensors such as NASA's MODIS instruments onboard the Terra and Aqua satellites. As the total amount of reflected radiation cannot be directly measured by satellite, a mathematical model of the BRDF is used to translate a sample set of satellite reflectance measurements into estimates of directional-hemispherical reflectance and bi-hemispherical reflectance.
Albedo can then be given as:
Directional-hemispherical reflectance is sometimes referred to as black-sky albedo and bi-hemispherical reflectance as white sky albedo. These terms are important because they allow the albedo to be calculated for any given illumination conditions from a knowledge of the intrinsic properties of the surface.
Enceladus, a moon of Saturn, has one of the highest known albedos of any body in the solar system, with 99% of EM radiation reflected. Another notable high albedo body is Eris, with an albedo of 86%. Many objects in the outer solar system and asteroid belt have low albedos down to about 5%. 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 around 7%, but it is strongly directional and non-Lambertian, displaying also a strong opposition effect. While 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 albedos that are used in astronomy are the 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.
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.
The correlation between astronomical (geometric) albedo, absolute magnitude and diameter is
where is astronomical albedo, is diameter in kilometres, and H is the absolute magnitude.
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.
At the scale of the wavelength of light even wavy water is always smooth so the light is reflected in a 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 (from as high as 100%) because of the steepness of the reflectivity-vs.-incident-angle curve and a locally increased average incident angle.
Although the reflectivity of water is very low at high and medium angles of incident light, it increases tremendously at small angles of incident light such as occur on the illuminated side of the earth near the terminator (early morning, late afternoon and near the poles). However, as mentioned above, waviness causes an appreciable reduction. Since the 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 low angles of incident light.
Note that white caps on waves look white (and have high albedo) because the water is foamed up (not smooth at the scale of the wavelength of light) so the Fresnel equations do not apply. Fresh ‘black’ ice exhibits Fresnel reflection.
Clouds are another source of albedo that play into the global warming equation. Different types of clouds have different albedo values, theoretically ranging from a minimum of near 0% to a maximum in the high 70s. "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.
Albedo and climate in some areas are already affected by artificial clouds, such as those created by the contrails of heavy commercial airliner traffic. A study following the burning of the Kuwaiti oil fields by Saddam Hussein showed that temperatures under the burning oil fires were as much as 10oC colder than temperatures several miles away under clear skies.