Radiation that is not absorbed or scattered in the atmosphere can reach and interact with the Earth's surface. There are three (3) forms of interaction that can take place when energy strikes, or is incident (I) upon the surface. These are: absorption (A); transmission (T); and reflection (R). The total incident energy will interact with the surface in one or more of these three ways. The proportions of each will depend on the wavelength of the energy and the material and condition of the feature.
Absorption (A) occurs when radiation (energy) is absorbed into the target while transmission (T) occurs when radiation passes through a target. Reflection (R) occurs when radiation "bounces" off the target and is redirected. In remote sensing, we are most interested in measuring the radiation reflected from targets. We refer to two types of reflection, which represent the two extreme ends of the way in which energy is reflected from a target: specular reflection and diffuse reflection.
When a surface is smooth we get specular or mirror-like reflection where all (or almost all) of the energy is directed away from the surface in a single direction. Diffuse reflection occurs when the surface is rough and the energy is reflected almost uniformly in all directions. Most earth surface features lie somewhere between perfectly specular or perfectly diffuse reflectors. Whether a particular target reflects specularly or diffusely, or somewhere in between, depends on the surface roughness of the feature in comparison to the wavelength of the incoming radiation. If the wavelengths are much smaller than the surface variations or the particle sizes that make up the surface, diffuse reflection will dominate. For example, fine-grained sand would appear fairly smooth to long wavelength microwaves but would appear quite rough to the visible wavelengths.
Let's take a look at a couple of examples of targets at the Earth's surface and how energy at the visible and infrared wavelengths interacts with them.
Leaves: A chemical compound in leaves called chlorophyll strongly absorbs radiation in the red and blue wavelengths but reflects green wavelengths. Leaves appear "greenest" to us in the summer, when chlorophyll content is at its maximum. In autumn, there is less chlorophyll in the leaves, so there is less absorption and proportionately more reflection of the red wavelengths, making the leaves appear red or yellow (yellow is a combination of red and green wavelengths). The internal structure of healthy leaves act as excellent diffuse reflectors of near-infrared wavelengths. If our eyes were sensitive to near-infrared, trees would appear extremely bright to us at these wavelengths. In fact, measuring and monitoring the near-IR reflectance is one way that scientists can determine how healthy (or unhealthy) vegetation may be.
Water: Longer wavelength visible and near infrared radiation is absorbed more by water than shorter visible wavelengths. Thus water typically looks blue or blue-green due to stronger reflectance at these shorter wavelengths, and darker if viewed at red or near infrared wavelengths. If there is suspended sediment present in the upper layers of the water body, then this will allow better reflectivity and a brighter appearance of the water. The apparent colour of the water will show a slight shift to longer wavelengths. Suspended sediment (S) can be easily confused with shallow (but clear) water, since these two phenomena appear very similar. Chlorophyll in algae absorbs more of the blue wavelengths and reflects the green, making the water appear more green in colour when algae is present. The topography of the water surface (rough, smooth, floating materials, etc.) can also lead to complications for water-related interpretation due to potential problems of specular reflection and other influences on colour and brightness.
We can see from these examples that, depending on the complex make-up of the target that is being looked at, and the wavelengths of radiation involved, we can observe very different responses to the mechanisms of absorption, transmission, and reflection. By measuring the energy that is reflected (or emitted) by targets on the Earth's surface over a variety of different wavelengths, we can build up a spectral response for that object. By comparing the response patterns of different features we may be able to distinguish between them, where we might not be able to, if we only compared them at one wavelength. For example, water and vegetation may reflect somewhat similarly in the visible wavelengths but are almost always separable in the infrared. Spectral response can be quite variable, even for the same target type, and can also vary with time (e.g. "green-ness" of leaves) and location. Knowing where to "look" spectrally and understanding the factors which influence the spectral response of the features of interest are critical to correctly interpreting the interaction of electromagnetic radiation with the surface.
Did you know?
"...now, here's something to 'reflect' on..."
... the colours we perceive are a combination of these radiation interactions (absorption, transmission, reflection), and represent the wavelengths being reflected. If all visible wavelengths are reflected from an object, it will appear white, while an object absorbing all visible wavelengths will appear colourless, or black.
On a clear night with the crescent or half moon showing, it is possible to see the outline and perhaps very slight detail of the dark portion of the moon. Where is the light coming from, that illuminates the dark side of the moon?
The answer is ...
Whiz quiz - Answer
The light originates from the sun (of course), hits the earth, bounces up to the (dark side of the) moon and then comes back to the earth and into your eye. A long way around - isn't it?