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This picture shows what happens to energy from the Sun once it gets to Earth.
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When Energy Gets to Earth:

Once energy from the Sun gets to Earth, several things can happen to it:

  • Energy can be scattered or absorbed by aerosols in the atmosphere. Aerosols are dust, soot, sulfates and nitric oxides. When aerosols absorb energy, the atmosphere becomes warmer. When aerosols scatter energy, the atmosphere is cooled.
  • Short wavelengths are absorbed by ozone in the stratosphere.
  • Clouds may act to either reflect energy out to space or absorb energy, trapping it in the atmosphere.
  • The land and water at Earth's surface may act to either reflect energy or absorb it. Light colored surfaces are more likely to reflect sunlight, while dark surfaces typically absorb the energy, warming the planet.

Albedo is the percentage of the Sun's energy that is reflected back by a surface. Light colored surfaces like ice have a high albedo, while dark colored surfaces tend to have a lower albedo. The buildings and pavement in cities have such a low albedo that cities have been called "heat islands" because they absorb so much energy that they warm up.

Last modified July 12, 2004 by Lisa Gardiner.

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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