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Have you noticed that in these images, clouds look white but the ocean looks black? Both are made of the same substance, water—why would they appear as opposite colors?

Landsat satellites see solar energy that reflects off the earth (or atmosphere) and back to the satellite. When light hits water, whether ocean or cloud droplet, most of the light reflects at the same angle it came in, like a basketball bounce-pass. Calm water lets the light bounce away, like a mirror, so little light reflects toward the satellite; the ocean looks dark. But a cloud’s millions of droplets bounce the light around like pinballs, so some light always scatters toward the satellite; therefore, the cloud looks bright. This is the same reason a choppy ocean with whitecaps looks brighter than a calm ocean.


Every picture has a story to tell
Sept. 15, 1999, Landsat 7 (path/row 6/83) — close up of Selkirk Island vortex street


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