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Geosciences LibreTexts

6.5: Light

  • Page ID
    4505
  • Radiant energy from the sun is important for several major oceanic processes:

    • Climate, winds, and major ocean currents are ultimately dependent on solar radiation reaching the Earth and heating different areas to different degrees.
    • Sunlight warms the surface water where much oceanic life lives.
    • Solar radiation provides light for photosynthesis, which supports the entire ocean ecosystem.

    The energy reaching Earth from the sun is a form of electromagnetic radiation, which is represented by the electromagnetic spectrum (Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\)). Electromagnetic waves vary in their frequency and wavelength. High frequency waves have very short wavelengths, and are very high energy forms of radiation, such as gamma rays and x-rays. These rays can easily penetrate the bodies of living organisms and interfere with individual atoms and molecules. At the other end of the spectrum are low energy, long wavelength waves such as radio waves, which do not pose a hazard to living organisms.

    Most of the solar energy reaching the Earth is in the range of visible light, with wavelengths between about 400-700 nm. Each color of visible light has a unique wavelength, and together they make up white light. The shortest wavelengths are on the violet and ultraviolet end of the spectrum, while the longest wavelengths are at the red and infrared end. In between, the colors of the visible spectrum comprise the familiar “ROYGBIV”; red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet.

    figure6.5.1-1024x548.png
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\) The electromagnetic spectrum. Frequency is expressed in Hertz (Hz), or waves per second, while wavelengths are expressed in meters (Phillip Roman, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons).

    Water is very effective at absorbing incoming light, so the amount of light penetrating the ocean declines rapidly (is attenuated) with depth (Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\)). At 1 m depth, only 45% of the solar energy that falls on the ocean surface remains. At 10 m depth only 16% of the light is still present, and only 1% of the original light is left at 100 m. No light penetrates beyond 1000 m.

    In addition to overall attenuation, the oceans absorb the different wavelengths of light at different rates (Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\)). The wavelengths at the extreme ends of the visible spectrum are attenuated faster than those wavelengths in the middle. Longer wavelengths are absorbed first; red is absorbed in the upper 10 m, orange by about 40 m, and yellow disappears before 100 m. Shorter wavelengths penetrate further, with blue and green light reaching the deepest depths.

    figure6.5.2.jpg
    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\) Light penetration in open ocean and coastal water, showing the different depths to which each color will penetrate (By NOAA – National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons).

    This explains why everything appears blue under water. The colors we perceive depends on the wavelengths of light that are received by our eyes. If an object appears red to us, that is because the object reflects red light but absorbs all of the other colors. So the only color reaching our eyes is red. Under water, blue is the only color of light still available at depth, so that is the only color that can be reflected back to our eyes, and everything has a blue tinge under water. A red object at depth will not appear red to us because there is no red light available to reflect off of the object. Objects in water will only appear as their real colors near the surface where all wavelengths of light are still available, or if the other wavelengths of light are provided artificially, such as by illuminating the object with a dive light.

    Water in the open ocean appears clear and blue because it contains much less particulate matter, such as phytoplankton or other suspended particles, and the clearer the water, the deeper the light penetration. Blue light penetrates deeply and is scattered by the water molecules, while all other colors are absorbed; thus the water appears blue. On the other hand, coastal water often appears greenish (Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\)). Coastal water contains much more suspended silt and algae and microscopic organisms than the open ocean. Many of these organisms, such as phytoplankton, absorb light in the blue and red range through their photosynthetic pigments, leaving green as the dominant wavelength of reflected light. Therefore the higher the phytoplankton concentration in water, the greener it appears. Small silt particles may also absorb blue light, further shifting the color of water away from blue when there are high concentrations of suspended particles.

    The ocean can be divided into depth layers depending on the amount of light penetration, as discussed in section 1.3 (Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\)). The upper 200 m is referred to as the photic or euphotic zone. This represents the region where enough light can penetrate to support photosynthesis, and it corresponds to the epipelagic zone. From 200-1000 m lies the dysphotic zone, or the twilight zone (corresponding with the mesopelagic zone). There is still some light at these depths, but not enough to support photosynthesis. Below 1000 m is the aphotic (or midnight) zone, where no light penetrates. This region includes the majority of the ocean volume, which exists in complete darkness.

    figure6.5.3.png
    Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\) The zones of the water column as defined by the amount of light penetration (PW).