Saturday, 15 June 2013

The Colour of Squiggly Lines

This week, I gave a talk about my lunar research to the Toronto chapter of KEGS, the Canadian Exploration Geophysical Society.  The interesting thing about my research is that whenever I want to go into detail about it, I generally have to do that using a bunch of squiggly lines called reflectance spectra. Since most people, even in the planetary field, are not reflectance spectroscopists (yes, that is what we are called), I usually have to explain what that means. And so I found myself explaining reflectance spectra to a group of geophysicists last Tuesday. That got me thinking that it was time to write a blog post about these squiggly lines.

Electro-magnetic spectrum
The electromagnetic spectrum includes many different kinds of radiation, such as gamma rays, X-rays, the visible colours of light, radio waves, and microwaves.  Each radiation type has a defining wavelength, which is the distance between two side-by-side crests in the wave that makes up that radiation.
Image Credit: Irene Antonenko
To understand spectra, you first have to understand light. Most people know that white light is made up of all the colours of the rainbow. Each colour represents a different wavelength of light, which is the distance between two crests of a light wave (since light travels in waves). But visible colours are only a small portion of all the possible wavelengths, which together make up the electromagnetic spectrum. At shorter wavelengths, we have X-rays, gamma rays, and ultraviolet light. At longer wavelength, we have infrared light, microwaves, and all the different frequencies of radio waves.

When light hits an object, not all of the different wavelengths (or colours) that make up that light will be reflected from the surface of the object.  The wavelengths that do get reflected are what gives that object its colour. For example, a green object looks green to us because that is the wavelength of light that it reflects. If no wavelengths are reflected, the object will look black. But if all of the wavelengths are reflected the object will look white.

Reflecting light
The colour of an object is determined by which wavelengths of light are reflected from the object. If no light at all is reflected, the object will look black. If all light is reflected, the object will look white. If only green wavelengths of light are reflected, the object will look green.
Image Credit: Irene Antonenko
Sample Spectra
When the percentage of light reflected from an object is plotted for each wavelength of light, the result is a squiggly line called a reflectance spectrum. The colours below this spectrum remind us of the corresponding colour of each wavelength.
Image Credit: Irene Antonenko


However, most objects are much more complex than this simple example. They reflect in many wavelengths, and they reflect some percentage at each of these wavelengths (it's not just all or nothing). So, when you plot the percentage of light that is reflected at each wavelength, you get a squiggly line that we spectroscopists call a reflectance spectrum (spectrum is the singular form of spectra). The thing to note is that most of these squiggly spectra have a number of peaks and valleys. There is no one wavelength to establish colour. Instead, the colour is determined by the strongest reflectors.

Leaf Spectra
The chlorophyll found in plants reflects most strongly at green wavelengths, giving them their green colour. Deciduous maple leaves lose their chlorophyll as the weather cools, allowing other compounds to dominate the leave's colour.
Image Credit: Irene Antonenko

Lunar Spectra
The three main minerals that are found on the Moon have spectra that can be distinguished relatively easily from each other. This allows us to study the composition of the lunar surface using remotely sensed spectral data.
Image Credit: Irene Antonenko
A great example to explain this is the leaf spectrum.  All vegetation reflects very strongly at infrared wavelengths (greater than 700 nanometers).  If our eyes could see infrared, all trees, leaves, etc. would look infrared to us. But our eyes don't see those wavelengths, so the next strongest reflected wavelengths in the range we do see (about 400 to 700 nm) produce the leaf's colour. Chlorophyll, which converts sunlight to energy in plants, reflects most strongly at green wavelengths. This is why most plants look green. But, in deciduous trees, such as maples, the leaves stop producing chlorophyll when the weather cools. As the amount of chlorophyll drops, the strong chlorophyll reflectance in green disappears. This allows other compounds, which reflect more strongly at red or yellow wavelengths (but not as strongly as the chlorophyll does in green), to be revealed. 

The important thing about spectra, which the leaf example demonstrates quite nicely, is that these squiggly lines can be used to identify components that make up the object you are observing. In the case of the leaf, its spectrum can tell you (among other things), whether or not chlorophyll is present in the leaves - though our eyes can tell us that almost as readily.

Which brings us to the planetary portion of the story. Reflectance spectra can be used to tell us which minerals make up the rocks on planetary surfaces. Each mineral has a very distinct spectrum, which can be used by experts and highly specialized software to identify it, allowing us to study the composition of planetary surfaces with remotely sensed spectral data.

My next post will build on this concept and talk about how we use spectral data to study the surface of the Moon...


  1. How can reflectance increase in NIR portion in red leaf as compare to green leaf. we know NIR gives the reflectance of leaf structure and in red leaf, leaf is going to dead, then how it can give high reflectance in NIR?

    1. I am not sure I understand this question, but let me try to answer what I think you are asking.
      The chlorophyll in the leaf is what reflects green wavelengths so strongly in a healthy leaf. When the leaf starts to die in the fall, it stops producing chlorophyll, so the amount of reflected green light is greatly reduced. Other compounds, which continue to be present in the leaf as it dies, reflect light in red (and yellow) wavelengths. When chlorophyll is present, this red light is overshadowed by the very strong refection in the green wavelengths. But when the chlorophyll dies, there is no more reflection at green wavelengths, allowing the red reflected light (which was actually there all along) to finally be seen.
      I hope that helps.