Remote Sensing of Ocean Color

  • Heidi M. Dierssen
  • Kaylan Randolph


The oceans cover over 70% of the earth’s surface and the life inhabiting the oceans play an important role in shaping the earth’s climate. Phytoplankton, the microscopic organisms in the surface ocean, are responsible for half of the photosynthesis on the planet. These organisms at the base of the food web take up light and carbon dioxide and fix carbon into biological structures releasing oxygen. Estimating the amount of microscopic phytoplankton and their associated primary productivity over the vast expanses of the ocean is extremely challenging from ships. However, as phytoplankton take up light for photosynthesis, they change the color of the surface ocean from blue to green. Such shifts in ocean color can be measured from sensors placed high above the sea on satellites or aircraft and is called “ocean color remote sensing.” In open ocean waters, the ocean color is predominantly driven by the phytoplankton concentration and ocean color remote sensing has been used to estimate the amount of chlorophyll a, the primary light-absorbing pigment in all phytoplankton. For the last few decades, satellite data have been used to estimate large-scale patterns of chlorophyll and to model primary productivity across the global ocean from daily to interannual timescales. Such global estimates of chlorophyll and primary productivity have been integrated into climate models and illustrate the important feedbacks between ocean life and global climate processes. In coastal and estuarine systems, ocean color is significantly influenced by other light-absorbing and light-scattering components besides phytoplankton. New approaches have been developed to evaluate the ocean color in relationship to colored dissolved organic matter, suspended sediments, and even to characterize the bathymetry and composition of the seafloor in optically shallow waters. Ocean color measurements are increasingly being used for environmental monitoring of harmful algal blooms, critical coastal habitats (e.g., seagrasses, kelps), eutrophication processes, oil spills, and a variety of hazards in the coastal zone.


Atmospheric Correction Colored Dissolve Organic Matter Harmful Algal Bloom Ocean Color Photosynthetically Available Radiation 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


Absorption, a(λ)

The fraction of a collimated beam of photons in a particular wavelength (λ), which is absorbed or scattered per unit distance within the medium (units 1/length or m−1). Photons which are absorbed by ocean water alter the spectral distribution of light that can be observed remotely.

Apparent optical properties (AOP)

Optical properties which depend primarily on the medium itself but have a small dependence on the ambient light field. Typically, AOPs are derived from measurements of the ambient light field, particularly upwelling and downwelling radiance and irradiance. Principal AOPs include irradiance reflectance, remote sensing reflectance, and the diffuse attenuation coefficients.

Backscattering, bb(λ)

Light of a particular wavelength (λ) that is scattered in a direction 90–180° away from its original path (i.e., backward hemisphere). Backscattered light is what is measured as ocean color in remote sensing, namely, downward propagating sunlight that has been redirected back toward the sea surface and out into the atmosphere. For natural waters, only a few percent of the light entering the ocean is backscattered out.

Colored or chromophoric dissolved organic material (CDOM)

CDOM is yellow-brown in color and absorbs primarily ultraviolet and blue light decreasing exponentially with increasing wavelength. Produced from the decay of plant material, it consists mainly of humic and fulvic acids and is operationally defined as substances that pass though a 0.2 μm filter.


Light which propagates or bends along the boundary of two different mediums with different indices of refraction.

Diffuse attenuation coefficient, K(λ)

A normalized depth derivative that describes the rate of change of light, plane incident irradiance, with depth. Sunlight underwater typically decreases exponentially with depth.

Index of refraction (real), n

The speed of light in a medium, c med , relative to the speed of light in a vacuum, c v expressed as \( n = {c_v}/{c_{{med}}} \). The real index of refraction determines the scattering of light at the boundary between two different mediums and within the medium from thermal and molecular fluctuations. The relative refractive index, n′, is the ratio of the speed of light within the medium, c m , to the speed of light within a particle, c p . As n′ deviates from 1, the scattering caused by the particle increases for a general size and shape particle (e.g., minerals and bubbles).

Inherent optical properties (IOP)

Optical properties which depend on the medium itself and are independent of the ambient light field. IOPs are defined from a parallel beam of light incident on a thin layer of the medium. Two fundamental IOPs are the absorption (a) and the volume scattering coefficient (β), which describe how light is either absorbed or directionally scattered by ocean water.

Irradiance (downward planar), Ed(λ)

The incremental amount of radiant energy per unit time (W) incident on the sensor area (m−2) from all solid angles contained in the upper hemisphere, expressed per unit wavelength of light (λ, nm−1). This is used to measure the amount of spectral energy from the sun reaching the sea surface.

Irradiance reflectance, R(λ)

The ratio of the upwelling irradiance, E u (λ), to the plane downwelling irradiance, E d (λ), in different wavelengths (λ).

Optical depth, ζ

A measure of how opaque a medium is to radiation. The optical depth is a function of the geometric depth and the vertical attenuation coefficient.

Optically shallow waters

An aquatic system where the spectral reflectance off the bottom contributes to radiance measured above the sea surface and is defined by the water clarity, bottom depth, and bottom composition.

Photosynthetically available radiation (PAR)

The integrated photon flux (photons per second per square meter) within the 400–700 nm wavelength range at the ocean surface. PAR is the total energy available to phytoplankton for photosynthesis and is reported in units of Q m−2 s−1, where Q is quanta, or in μE m−2 s−1, where E is Einsteins.

Radiance, L(λ)

The incremental amount of radiant energy per unit time (in Watts) incident on the sensor area (m−2) in a solid angle view (sr−1) per unit wavelength (λ) of light (nm−1). A satellite measures radiance.


At the boundary of two different mediums with different indices of refraction, a certain amount of radiation is returned at an angle equal to the angle of incidence.


The direction of light propagation changes, or is bent, at the boundary between two mediums with different indices of refraction. The refracted light bends toward the normal boundary when the index of refraction increases from one medium to another and away from the normal boundary when the index of refraction decreases from one medium to another.

Remote sensing reflectance, Rrs(λ)

A specialized ratio used for remote sensing purposes formulated as the ratio of the spectral water-leaving radiance, L w (λ), to the plane irradiance incident on the water, E d (λ). It represents the spectral distribution of sunlight penetrating the sea surface that is backscattered out again and potentially measured remotely. Theoretically, it is proportional to spectral backscattering b b (λ) and inversely proportional to absorption a(λ) of the surface water column.

Water-leaving radiance, Lw(λ)

The component of the radiance signal measured above the water consisting of photons that have penetrated the water column and been backscattered out through the air-sea interface. It does not include photons reflected off the sea surface, also called sun glint.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Marine SciencesUniversity of ConnecticutGrotonUSA

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