Optical depth

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Aerosol Optical Depth (AOD) at 830 nm measured with the same LED sun photometer from 1990 to 2016 at Geronimo Creek Observatory, Texas. Measurements made at or near solar noon when the sun is not obstructed by clouds. Peaks indicate smoke, dust and smog. Saharan dust events are measured each summer.

In physics, optical depth or optical thickness is the natural logarithm of the ratio of incident to transmitted radiant power through a material. Thus, the larger the optical depth, the smaller the amount of transmitted radiant power through the material. Spectral optical depth or spectral optical thickness is the natural logarithm of the ratio of incident to transmitted spectral radiant power through a material.[1] Optical depth is dimensionless, and in particular is not a length, though it is a monotonically increasing function of optical path length, and approaches zero as the path length approaches zero. The use of the term "optical density" for optical depth is discouraged.[1]

In chemistry, a closely related quantity called "absorbance" or "decadic absorbance" is used instead of optical depth: the common logarithm of the ratio of incident to transmitted radiant power through a material, that is the optical depth divided by ln 10.

Mathematical definitions[edit]

Optical depth[edit]

Optical depth of a material, denoted , is given by:[2]


  • Φei is the radiant flux received by that material;
  • Φet is the radiant flux transmitted by that material;
  • T is the transmittance of that material.

Absorbance is related to optical depth by:

where A is the absorbance.

Spectral optical depth[edit]

Spectral optical depth in frequency and spectral optical depth in wavelength of a material, denoted τν and τλ respectively, are given by:[1]


Spectral absorbance is related to spectral optical depth by:


  • Aν is the spectral absorbance in frequency;
  • Aλ is the spectral absorbance in wavelength.

Relationship with attenuation[edit]


Optical depth measures the attenuation of the transmitted radiant power in a material. Attenuation can be caused by absorption, but also reflection, scattering, and other physical processes. Optical depth of a material is approximately equal to its attenuation when both the absorbance is much less than 1 and the emittance of that material (not to be confused with radiant exitance or emissivity) is much less than the optical depth:


  • Φet is the radiant power transmitted by that material;
  • Φeatt is the radiant power attenuated by that material;
  • Φei is the radiant power received by that material;
  • Φee is the radiant power emitted by that material;
  • T = Φetei is the transmittance of that material;
  • ATT = Φeattei is the attenuance of that material;
  • E = Φeeei is the emittance of that material,

and according to Beer–Lambert law,


Attenuation coefficient[edit]

Optical depth of a material is also related to its attenuation coefficient by:


  • l is the thickness of that material through which the light travels;
  • α(z) is the attenuation coefficient or Napierian attenuation coefficient of that material at z,

and if α(z) is uniform along the path, the attenuation is said to be a linear attenuation and the relation becomes:

Sometimes the relation is given using the attenuation cross section of the material, that is its attenuation coefficient divided by its number density:


  • σ is the attenuation cross section of that material;
  • n(z) is the number density of that material at z,

and if is uniform along the path, i.e., , the relation becomes:

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Atomic physics[edit]

In atomic physics, the spectral optical depth of a cloud of atoms can be calculated from the quantum-mechanical properties of the atoms. It is given by


Atmospheric sciences[edit]

In atmospheric sciences, one often refers to the optical depth of the atmosphere as corresponding to the vertical path from Earth's surface to outer space; at other times the optical path is from the observer's altitude to outer space. The optical depth for a slant path is τ = , where τ′ refers to a vertical path, m is called the relative airmass, and for a plane-parallel atmosphere it is determined as m = sec θ where θ is the zenith angle corresponding to the given path. Therefore,

The optical depth of the atmosphere can be divided into several components, ascribed to Rayleigh scattering, aerosols, and gaseous absorption. The optical depth of the atmosphere can be measured with a sun photometer.

The optical depth with respect to the height within the atmosphere is given by


and it follows that the total atmospheric optical depth is given by


In both equations:

  • ka is the absorption coefficient
  • w1 is the mixing ratio
  • ρ0 is the density of air at sea level
  • H is the scale height of the atmosphere
  • z is the height in question

The optical depth of a plane parallel cloud layer is given by



  • Qe is the extinction efficiency
  • L is the liquid water path
  • H is the geometrical thickness
  • N is the concentration of droplets
  • ρl is the density of liquid water

So, with a fixed depth and total liquid water path,



In astronomy, the photosphere of a star is defined as the surface where its optical depth is 2/3. This means that each photon emitted at the photosphere suffers an average of less than one scattering before it reaches the observer. At the temperature at optical depth 2/3, the energy emitted by the star (the original derivation is for the Sun) matches the observed total energy emitted.[citation needed][clarification needed]

Note that the optical depth of a given medium will be different for different colors (wavelengths) of light.

For planetary rings, the optical depth is the (negative logarithm of the) proportion of light blocked by the ring when it lies between the source and the observer. This is usually obtained by observation of stellar occultations.

Mars dust storm – optical depth tau – May to September 2018
(Mars Climate Sounder; Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter)
(1:38; animation; 30 October 2018; file description)

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c IUPAC, Compendium of Chemical Terminology, 2nd ed. (the "Gold Book") (1997). Online corrected version:  (2006–) "Absorbance". doi:10.1351/goldbook.A00028
  2. ^ Christopher Robert Kitchin (1987). Stars, Nebulae and the Interstellar Medium: Observational Physics and Astrophysics. CRC Press.
  3. ^ a b c d W., Petty, Grant (2006). A first course in atmospheric radiation. Sundog Pub. ISBN 9780972903318. OCLC 932561283.

External links[edit]