Why the Atmospheric Window Matters in Earth Science

Atmospheric Window

Last Updated: May 19, 2017

What is Earth’s Atmospheric Window?

Have you ever wondered about how light passes the atmosphere to the Earth?

Because of ozone, water, carbon dioxide and other molecules in the atmosphere, this saves us from harmful radiation.

As a result, we only see specific portions of the electromagnetic (EM) spectrum. This phenomenon is known as the Earth’s “atmospheric window”.

In remote sensing, sensors are built to pick up those specific spectral bands.

The Atmospheric Window as a Curtain Filled of Holes

Not all of the EM spectrum hits the Earth’s surface. Atmospheric absorption prevents specific types of EM radiation to pass through the atmosphere.

The upper atmosphere blocks 100% of the gamma rays, x-rays and most ultra-violet light. But notice how visible light freely passes. Our eyes use this visible light to see features on Earth.

Atmospheric Electromagnetic Opacity
Atmospheric Electromagnetic Window

Think of the atmospheric window like a curtain with holes.

The curtain blocks specific wavelengths like gamma rays. But in reality, the curtain is the water vapor, ozone, carbon dioxide and molecules in the atmosphere. These blocked wavelengths are known as “absorption bands”.

Holes in the curtain are the “atmospheric window” with specific bands of EM spectrum can freely pass. In the image below, you can see how visible and near infrared light almost pass freely.

What is an Atmospheric Windows? An atmospheric window is the portion of the electromagnetic spectrum that can be transmitted through the atmosphere.
What is an Absorption Band? An absorption band is the portion of the electromagnetic spectrum that can be transmitted through the atmosphere.

How the Atmospheric Window Impacts Remote Sensing

The atmospheric window allows specific types of EM radiation to freely pass. Radio waves can pass through quite easily. But x-rays cannot and are blocked in the absorption band.

But how does this relate to remote sensing?

Engineers always keep the atmospheric window in mind when they design a sensor. They need to know which spectral bands sensors can measure.

Atmospheric Window

The graph above shows the Earth’s “atmospheric window”. The EM radiation (in blue) is what sensors are capable of seeing on Earth.

Our eyes can see red, green and blue which is visible light. Healthy vegetation (or chlorophyll) reflects more green light. However, it absorbs more red and blue light. That is why our eyes see plants as green.

But engineers design sensors to detect non-visible light as well. For example, vegetation reflects near-infrared (NIR) which is invisible to the human eye. But sensors can pick up this spectral information.

In summary, special types of sensors can reveal new insights about Earth’s features, that our eyes can’t.

Let’s Summarize

The atmospheric window are wavelengths at which electromagnetic radiation from the sun will penetrate the Earth’s atmosphere.

Remote sensing not only takes advantage of the visible spectrum (red, green and blue) but also non-visible light.

This is why engineers keep in mind the atmospheric windows in the design process.

Unless you are an atmospheric scientist, why measure something that doesn’t reach the Earth?

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