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Albedo Effect Lesson for Kids

Instructor: Shoshana Yarin

Shoshana has taught all grades with an emphasis in science and has a master's degree in science.

The albedo effect, which is how much light is reflected, is related to Earth's climate and global warming. Read this lesson to learn more about the albedo effect in snowy and forested places and how clouds play a part in the albedo effect.

What Is Albedo?

Have you ever seen how bright the sun is when it's reflected off of snow? That would be because snow has a high albedo. Albedo is a measure of how much light is reflected back from a body. It usually refers to planetary bodies like Earth and the amount of sunlight that's reflected back into space. Earth's average albedo is .3 to .35, which means 30% to 35% of the sunlight is reflected back into space.

Snow Reflecting Light
Snow

What happens to the sunlight that is not reflected? The other 65% to 70% of the sunlight gets absorbed by the earth. Dark ocean water, trees, and dark soil absorb a lot of the sun's energy, and that's what keeps us warm. Imagine the difference between leaving a bicycle with a black seat or a white seat in the sun. The black seat will absorb a lot more energy from the sun, which you would feel as heat; ouch! That's an effect of albedo.

What is the Albedo Effect on Earth?

For Earth, a lower albedo would mean that Earth reflects less energy, so the effect is warmer temperatures. Obviously then, a higher albedo would create a cooling effect. Different surfaces on Earth have different albedos and different effects. The polar ice caps have a higher albedo, so they reflect more sunlight, creating a colder climate. Rainforests have a lower albedo and therefore have a warmer climate.

Absorption and Reflection of the Sun
NASA

Global Warming

As we can see, climate is affected by Earth's albedo. Because the amount of sunlight reflected by Earth is an average, changes in one area can affect the climate of the entire planet. Scientists are concerned that changes in Earth's albedo can add to global warming. Global warming is the theory that Earth's temperature is rising due to an increase of carbon dioxide and other chemicals.

Remember that polar ice has a high albedo? If much of the ice melts and becomes dark ocean water, the albedo in this area will be lower and have a warming effect, adding to global warming. Scientists have observed some polar ice melting.

Some Polar Ice Melting Affects Albedo
polar ice

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