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When Energy Gets to Earth: - Windows to the Universe

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Learn about planets outside our solar system through Exoplanets and Alien Solar Systems by Tahir Yaqoob, Ph.D., a book in our online store book collection.
This picture shows what happens to energy from the Sun once it gets to Earth.
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NCAR

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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The Summer 2010 issue of The Earth Scientist, available in our online store, includes articles on rivers and snow, classroom planetariums, satellites and oceanography, hands-on astronomy, and global warming.

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Windows to the Universe, a project of the National Earth Science Teachers Association, is sponsored in part by the National Science Foundation and NASA, our Founding Partners (the American Geophysical Union and American Geosciences Institute) as well as through Institutional, Contributing, and Affiliate Partners, individual memberships and generous donors. Thank you for your support! NASA AGU AGI NSF