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Light in Water

1. Why study the amount of light penetration in lakes? 2. What 5 things determine how much light reaches a lake? 3. What factors influence light attenuation?

Why study light in lakes?

Light provides energy for photosynthesis phytoplankton macrophytes Sunlight heats the water

Zooplankton use light for orientation

Vision of predators

Properties of light (or more precisely, solar radiation):

In the atmosphere and in water its behavior is best explained by assuming a wave
In photochemical reactions (photosynthesis and vision) it is necessary to consider light as discrete packets of energy (quanta)

A quantum of light is called a photon

The energy (E) content of a photon varies with wavelength:

E = hn
h = Plancks constant (6.625 x 10-34 J sec)
n = frequency (Hz)

Frequency and wavelength are related by:

n = c/l
n = frequency

l = wavelength
c = speed of light 2.9972 x 1010 (cm/s) in air 2.2492 x 1010 (cm/s) in water

Spectrum of solar radiation:

Wetzel 2001

Ultraviolet (UV) 100400 nm

UV-C < 280 nm UV-B 280-320 nm UV-A 320-400 nm Short wavelength = high frequency = high energy photons Small fraction (~ 3 %) of the daily energy distribution

damaging effects on organisms

Visible 400-700 nm
VBGYORshort to long

Photosynthetically active radiation PAR

~ 46 % of the daily energy distribution

Infrared radiation 700-3000 nm

long wavelength = low frequency = low energy photons

~ 51 % of the daily energy distribution

transfers heat to the surface waters

How much light reaches the surface of the lake depends on 5 things: (1) Latitude

(2) Season

How much light reaches the surface of the lake depends on 5 things:

(3) Time of day


The atmosphere scatters and absorbs light

(4) Altitude

(5) Meteorological conditions

Of the light that the reaches the surface of the lake:

Some is reflected
The rest enters the lake

What determines how much light is reflected? Angle of incidence

Surface reflection (%)

Surface characteristics of the water

Can increase reflection 30-40%

What happens to the light that enters the lake? Scattered by suspended particles Transferred to other energy sources (photosynthesis) Absorbed as heat

Deeper in the lake, there is less radiant energy this is called light attenuation

In pure water (no scattering, no photosynthesis) for every given wavelength a constant fraction of light is absorbed (transferred to heat) with each increase in depth
In this example, the attenuation coefficient is 0.1 (i.e. 10%)

% of surface light
0 0 5 10 25 50 75 100

% of surface light
1 0 5 10
depth (m)



depth (m)

15 20 25 30 35

15 20 25 30 35

This decrease of amount of light with depth can be estimated by:

Iz = I0 e-k z


I0 = light intensity at the lake surface Iz = light intensity at depth z kd = vertical attenuation coefficient z = depth (m)

I0 and Id are measured with a light meter solve for kd

kd =

ln I0 ln Iz
% of surface light
0 0 5 10
depth (m)

This is exponential decay and kd is the rate of decay

The higher the kd the faster light is attenuated with depth





15 20 25 30 35

10% 20%

Water is a color filter Red is absorbed most quickly

Blue penetrates the furthest

This relationship is imperfect in nature because:

Sunlight is not monochromatic

Lake water has suspended particles that scatter and absorb the light They are often concentrated into discrete layers

Dissolved organic compounds in the water have high absorption of UV and blue

Comparison of composite kd among lakes

Which of these lakes is the clearest? How do you know?

Why is it important to know how far light penetrates in a particular lake?

Kalff 2002

Secchi disc:
Named for an Italian priest/scientist (1800s)

20 cm disk, either all white or black and white Depth at which the disk is no longer visible from the shady side of the boat (without sunglasses)
Secchi depth corresponds roughly to 10% of surface light

Varies with lakes and with season

Crater Lake Lake Superior Typical small lake Productive pond 40 m 20 m 1-8 m a few cm

Terms and Concepts to Know

Photon Ultraviolet radiation Infrared radiation Angle of incidence Light attenuation Exponential decay Kd Secchi disc/Secchi depth