Biosignatures & Paleobiology

Ocean Signatures In The Total Flux And Polarization Spectra Of Earth-like Exoplanets

By Keith Cowing
May 11, 2022
Filed under
Ocean Signatures In The Total Flux And Polarization Spectra Of Earth-like Exoplanets
The total flux F of starlight that is reflected by cloud-free, dry model planets (left column) and cloud-free ocean planets (right column) as functions of λ at 1 nm resolution, for nine phase angles α from 90◦ (dark blue) to 170◦ (dark red) with steps of 10◦ (see Fig. 8 for the colors of the different α’s). The surface albedo as of the dry planets is 0.0 (top left), 0.1 (middle left), and 0.8 (bottom left). The wind speed v over the oceans is 13 m/s (top right), 7 m/s (middle right), and 1 m/s (bottom right).

Numerical simulations of starlight that is reflected by Earth-like exoplanets predict habitability signatures that can be searched for with future telescopes. We explore signatures of water oceans in the flux and polarization spectra of this reflected light.

With an adding-doubling algorithm, we compute the total flux F, polarized flux Q and degree of polarization P of starlight reflected by dry and ocean model planets with Earth-like atmospheres and patchy clouds.

The oceans consist of Fresnel reflecting surfaces with wind-ruffled waves, foam and wave shadows, above natural blue seawater. Our results are presented as functions of wavelength (from 300 to 2500 nm with 1 nm resolution) and as functions of the planetary phase angle from 90 to 170 degrees. The ocean glint increases F, |Q| and P with increasing phase angle at non-absorbing wavelengths, and causes the spectra of F and |Q| for the various phase angles to intersect.

In the near-infrared, Q is negative, i.e. the direction of polarization is perpendicular to the plane through the star, planet, and observer. In the P-spectra, the glint leaves dips (instead of peaks) in gaseous absorption bands. All those signatures are missing in the spectra of dry planets. The dips in P, and the negative Q in the near-infrared, can be searched for at a phase angle of 90 degrees, where the planet-star separation is largest.

Those ocean signatures in polarized light do not suffer from false positive glint signals that could be due to clouds or reflecting dry surfaces. For heavily cloudy planets, ocean detection is possible when the glint is (partially) cloud-free. When modelling signals of planets with oceans, using horizontally inhomogeneous cloud covers is thus crucial. Observations spread over time would increase the probability of catching a cloud-free glint and detecting an ocean.

Victor J.H. Trees, Daphne M. Stam

Comments: Accepted for publication in Astronomy & Astrophysics
Subjects: Earth and Planetary Astrophysics (astro-ph.EP); Atmospheric and Oceanic Physics (
Cite as: arXiv:2205.05669 [astro-ph.EP] (or arXiv:2205.05669v1 [astro-ph.EP] for this version)
Submission history
From: Victor Trees
[v1] Wed, 11 May 2022 17:55:07 UTC (16,720 KB)

Explorers Club Fellow, ex-NASA Space Station Payload manager/space biologist, Away Teams, Journalist, Lapsed climber, Synaesthete, Na’Vi-Jedi-Freman-Buddhist-mix, ASL, Devon Island and Everest Base Camp veteran, (he/him) 🖖🏻