Solar Radiation Transfer: Absorption, Reflection & Scattering

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  • 0:00 Incoming Radiation
  • 0:38 Reflective Earth
  • 1:27 Absorption
  • 2:29 Scattering
  • 3:46 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Meredith Mikell
The sun constantly showers Earth with radiation. Some is absorbed, some is reflected, and some is scattered by the atmosphere. Here, we will explore what happens to this radiation and finish with a brief quiz.

Incoming Radiation

Ahh, solar radiation. Nothing feels better than the sun's warmth shining down while you relax on the beach. Not only does solar radiation keep our planet's climate livable for its inhabitants, it also is the driving force behind photosynthesis, the water cycle, and many other processes that make Earth habitable to the living things that call it home.

But not all of the radiation emitted by the Sun makes it to the Earth's surface. Some of it is absorbed, but much of it is reflected off of the surface or scattered off of the atmosphere. This is actually a good thing, given that 'too much' radiation would render the planet lifeless!

Reflective Earth

Any object that can absorb radiation will also reflect some of that radiation. This is the reason why, from space, Earth appears bright and glowing, reflecting away some of the Sun's light. Earth's albedo, the amount of radiation reflected, is about 30% of the total incoming radiation from the Sun. The other 70% of the radiation is absorbed. The reflected radiation simply bounces off of Earth's atmosphere and is re-emitted into space.

All objects have some degree of albedo, except for theoretical blackbody objects, which absorb 100% of the radiation it receives and reflect none, hence appearing to be black. A black hole would be one such object, since its gravitation is so strong that no radiation can escape it, much less be reflected.


Most of the radiation Earth receives is directly absorbed by land and water. But some of it is reflected off of clouds or ice, bouncing the radiation out of the atmosphere. Different materials absorb different amounts of radiation, as do different colors of materials. You likely have heard that it is better to wear light colors on a hot, sunny day than it is to wear dark colors, as dark colors absorb more heat than the light colors. Snow caps, for example, reflect away more radiation than rock does.

But not all of the reflected albedo is lost to space. Some of the longer wavelengths - infrared, or heat radiation, for example - stay in the atmosphere, providing a cozy, insulating layer of heat. The gases of Earth's atmosphere provide that insulation because some of them are greenhouse gases, gases that absorb and trap infrared radiation, which include water vapor and carbon dioxide. The more greenhouse gases are present in the atmosphere, the more heat is trapped, and the warmer the atmosphere tends to be.

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