Electromagnetic Properties

The albedo, or reflectivity (an albedo of 0 means that there is no reflectivity), to solar radiation ranges from 0.5 to 0.9 for snow, 0.3 to 0.65 for firn, and 0.15 to 0.35 for glacier ice. At the thermal infrared wavelengths, snow and ice are almost perfectly "black" (absorbent), and the albedo is less than 0.01. This means that snow and ice can either absorb or radiate long-wavelength radiation with high efficiency. At longer electromagnetic wavelengths (microwave and radio frequencies), dry snow and ice are relatively transparent, although the presence of even small amounts of liquid water greatly modifies this property. Radio echo sounding (radar) techniques are now used routinely to measure the thickness of dry polar glaciers, even where they are kilometres in thickness, but the slightest amount of liquid water distributed through the mass creates great difficulties with the technique.

Ice Ages

Ice ages, which are also known as glacial ages, are any geologic period during which thick ice sheets cover vast areas of land. Such periods of large-scale glaciation may last several million years and drastically reshape surface features of entire continents. A number of major ice ages have occurred throughout Earth history. The earliest known took place during Precambrian time dating back more than 570 million years. The most recent periods of widespread glaciation occurred during the Pleistocene Epoch (about 2.6 million to 11,700 years ago).

A lesser, recent glacial stage called the Little Ice Age began in the 16th century and advanced and receded intermittently over three centuries in Europe and many other regions. Its maximum development was reached about 1750, at which time glaciers were more widespread on Earth than at any time since the last major ice age ended about 11,700 years ago.

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