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The Electromagnetic Spectrum

The electromagnetic spectrum ranges from the shorter wavelengths (including gamma and x-rays) to the longer wavelengths (including microwaves and broadcast radio waves). There are several regions of the electromagnetic spectrum which are useful for remote sensing.


For most purposes, the ultraviolet or UV portion of the spectrum has the shortest wavelengths which are practical for remote sensing. This radiation is just beyond the violet portion of the visible wavelengths, hence its name. Some Earth surface materials, primarily rocks and minerals, fluoresce or emit visible light when illuminated by UV radiation.


The light which our eyes - our "remote sensors" - can detect is part of the visible spectrum. It is important to recognize how small the visible portion is relative to the rest of the spectrum. There is a lot of radiation around us which is "invisible" to our eyes, but can be detected by other remote sensing instruments and used to our advantage. The visible wavelengths cover a range from approximately 0.4 to 0.7 µm. The longest visible wavelength is red and the shortest is violet. Common wavelengths of what we perceive as particular colours from the visible portion of the spectrum are listed below. It is important to note that this is the only portion of the spectrum we can associate with the concept of colours.


Colours: Wavelength

Violet: 0.4 - 0.446 µm
Blue: 0.446 - 0.500 µm
Green: 0.500 - 0.578 µm
Yellow: 0.578 - 0.592 µm
Orange: 0.592 - 0.620 µm
Red: 0.620 - 0.7 µm


Blue, green, and red are the primary colours or wavelengths of the visible spectrum. They are defined as such because no single primary colour can be created from the other two, but all other colours can be formed by combining blue, green, and red in various proportions. Although we see sunlight as a uniform or homogeneous colour, it is actually composed of various wavelengths of radiation in primarily the ultraviolet, visible and infrared portions of the spectrum. The visible portion of this radiation can be shown in its component colours when sunlight is passed through a prism, which bends the light in differing amounts according to wavelength.


The next portion of the spectrum of interest is the infrared (IR) region which covers the wavelength range from approximately 0.7 µm to 100 µm - more than 100 times as wide as the visible portion! The infrared region can be divided into two categories based on their radiation properties - the reflected IR, and the emitted or thermal IR. Radiation in the reflected IR region is used for remote sensing purposes in ways very similar to radiation in the visible portion. The reflected IR covers wavelengths from approximately 0.7 µm to 3.0 µm. The thermal IR region is quite different than the visible and reflected IR portions, as this energy is essentially the radiation that is emitted from the Earth's surface in the form of heat. The thermal IR covers wavelengths from approximately 3.0 µm to 100 µm.


The portion of the spectrum of more recent interest to remote sensing is the microwave region from about 1 mm to 1 m. This covers the longest wavelengths used for remote sensing. The shorter wavelengths have properties similar to the thermal infrared region while the longer wavelengths approach the wavelengths used for radio broadcasts. Because of the special nature of this region and its importance to remote sensing in Canada, an entire chapter (Chapter 3) of the tutorial is dedicated to microwave sensing.

Did you know?

colour saturation

Hue and saturation are independent characteristics of colour. Hue refers to the wavelength of light, which we commonly call "colour", while saturation indicates how pure the colour is, or how much white is mixed in with it. For instance, "pink" can be considered a less saturated version of "red".

Whiz quiz

The infrared portion of the electromagnetic spectrum has two parts: the reflective and the emissive. Can you take photographs in these wavelength ranges?     The answer is ...


Whiz quiz - Answer

Yes and no. There are photographic films in black and white as well as colour emulsions, which are sensitive to the reflective portion of the infrared band and these are used for scientific and artistic purposes too. But no photographic films exist to directly record emissive infrared (heat). If they did, then they would have to be cooled (and kept very cold during use), which would be very impractical. However there are a number of electronic devices which detect and record thermal infrared images.

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