Spectral Reflectance

Different surface features reflect or absorb the sun's electromagnetic radiation in different ways. The reflectance properties of an object depend on the material and its physical and chemical state, the surface roughness as well as the geometric circumstances (e.g. incidence angle of the sunlight). The reflectance of a material also varies with the wavelength of the electromagnetic energy. These differences in reflectance make it possible to identify different earth surface features or materials by analyzing their spectral reflectance signatures. Spectral reflectance curves graph the spectral reflectance of objects as a function of wavelengths.

Spectral Reflectance of Earth Surface Features


In general, healthy vegetation is a very good absorber of electromagnetic energy in the visible region. Chlorophyll strongly absorbs light at wavelengths around 0.45 (blue) and 0.67 µm (red) and reflects strongly in green light, therefore our eyes perceive healthy vegetation as green. Healthy plants have a high reflectance in the near-infrared between 0.7 and 1.3 µm. This is primarily due to the internal structure of plant leaves. As this internal structure varies amongst different plant species, the near infrared wavelengths can be used to discriminate between different plant species.


In its liquid state, water has relatively low reflectance, with clear water having the greatest reflectance in the blue portion of the visible part of the spectrum. Water has high absorption and virtually no reflectance in near infrared wavelengths range and beyond. Turbid water has a higher reflectance in the visible region than clear water. This is also true for waters containing high chlorophyll concentrations.

Ice and Snow

Ice and snow generally have high reflectance across all visible wavelengths, hence their bright white appearance. Reflectance decreases in the near infrared portion and there is very low reflectance in the SWIR (shortwave infrared). The low reflection of ice and snow in the SWIR is related to their microscopic liquid water content. Reflectance differs for snow and ice depending on the actual composition of the material including impurities and grain size.


Bare soil generally has an increasing reflectance, with greater reflectance in near-infrared and shortwave infrared. Some of the factors affecting soil reflectance are:

Interactive Spectral Reflectance Graph

Use the below interactive graph to look at the spectral profiles of common surface materials.

Select Material to Graph

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