Journal of Geophysical Research: Atmospheres

Can black carbon in snow be detected by remote sensing?


  • Stephen G. Warren

    Corresponding author
    1. Department of Atmospheric Sciences, University of Washington, Seattle, Washington, USA
    • Corresponding author: S. G. Warren, Department of Atmospheric Sciences, University of Washington, Box 351640, Seattle, WA 98195–1640, USA. (

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[1] In remote areas of the Northern Hemisphere, typical mixing ratios of black carbon (BC) in snow are 3–30 ng/g. In cold fine-grained snow these BC amounts can reduce the broadband albedo by 0–1% and the visible-wavelength albedo by 0–2%, representing significant climatic forcings. In melting snow the reductions are larger, 0–3% and 1–6%, respectively. Surface albedos inferred from satellite measurements have typical errors of a few percent, so a signal of reduced albedo will be difficult to detect. The inference of albedo from a nadir radiance measurement can be biased low because of undetected thin clouds or blowing snow altering the angular reflectance pattern. But even if the albedo could be measured perfectly from satellite, its attribution would be ambiguous because of the vertical variation of snow grain size, absorbing aerosol in the atmosphere above the snow, and especially because of subpixel heterogeneity of the thin and patchy snow cover of the Arctic and many other treeless regions. The spectral signature of thin snow resembles that of BC in snow. For these reasons, attempts to use satellite remote sensing to estimate the BC content of snow, or the reduction of albedo by BC, are unlikely to be successful, except in highly polluted industrial regions.