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Global Warming: The Albedo Effect

Albedo, or the percentage of incoming radiation reflected off a surface, may interplay with the current escalation in climate change due to global warming. Landscape conversions from one type to another may change aggregate world albedo, since different landscape types vary widely in reflectivity. As ice sheets melt due to the earth's rising temperatures, the removal of this highly reflective surface and the resultant increase in the surface area of less-reflective oceans could cause a decrease in the earth's albedo. This could result in a positive climatic feedback loop between the melting of ice sheets and the escalation of global warming.

How important is the albedo of the earth's surfaces to the progression of global warming? What impact could changes in the composition of the earth's surfaces caused by global warming have upon the earth's climate? To answer these questions, it is pertinent to first establish the relationship between the earth's various surface types and their albedos and then discuss how this interplays with climate change.

Albedo is the percentage of incoming radiation reflected off a surface (USGS). An albedo of 1 means that 100% of incoming radiation is reflected (no radiation is absorbed); an albedo of 0 means that 0% of incoming radiation is reflected (all radiation is absorbed). The following table gives the colors and albedos for different surfaces that make up large areas of the earth (Weisstein, USGS):

When analyzing the table, it is interesting to note the way albedo follows color. Dark colored surfaces such as the dark green of a forest or the black of a fertile soil have low albedos (approximately 0.05 from this data). Light colored surfaces such as the light tan of a dry, dessert soil or the golden tan of annual grasslands during the summer have higher albedos (approximately 0.3 from this data). Snow, being close to pure white, has the highest albedo at 0.7 รป 0.9.

Also of interest is th...

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