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Measuring Light and Photosynthesis (PAR): Complicated, but Worth It

Dr. Gaylon S. Campbell discusses how to measure light and photosynthesis (PAR) in canopies and why it’s helpful to researchers.

Dandelion with a bright sun shining on it

The source of all energy on earth is the sun.

The ultimate source of all energy on earth is the sun. Availability of this energy to most organisms occurs through photosynthesis, the conversion of CO2 and H2O to carbohydrates (stored energy) and O2. Photosynthesis occurs when pigments in photosynthesizers absorb the energy of photons, initiating a chain of photochemical and chemical events. Where does this energy and material exchange occur? In plant canopies. The amount of photosynthesis that occurs in canopies depends on the amount of photosynthetically active radiation (PAR) intercepted by leaves in canopies.

Leaf in sunlight on a tree

In canopies, leaves function collectively.

It’s More Complicated Than You Might Think

The rate at which photosynthesis occurs in one leaf might be calculated, but in canopies, leaves function collectively. Extrapolating photosynthesis from individual leaves to entire canopies is complex; the sheer numbers of leaves and their arrangement in the canopy structure can be overwhelming. Leaf area, inclination, and orientation all affect the degree to which light is captured and used in a canopy.

Tree canopy with sunlight breaking through the leaves

Average light level decreases exponentially downward through the canopy.

What Happens to Light in a Canopy?

Light varies dramatically both spatially and temporally through canopies. The average light level decreases more or less exponentially downward through the canopy, as the amount of leaf surface encountered increases. For some canopies, the greatest amount of leaf area occurs near the center. Therefore, canopy structure analysis becomes increasingly complex as one proceeds from a single plant to stands of the same plant, or to plant communities because of the variety of plants and growth forms.

Picture looking up from the ground at a tree canopy with sunlight breaking through the leaves

Photosynthesis depends on leaf orientation.

Absorption of radiation and resulting photosynthesis depend on leaf orientation, sun elevation in the sky, spectral distribution and multiple reflections of light, and the arrangement of leaves. Patterns of light and shaded areas can be complicated and change with the sun’s position. In addition, seasonality of foliage can result in fairly small canopy interception of PAR for much of the year. PAR might also be intercepted by non-photosynthetic parts of plants (bark, flowers, etc).

In two weeks:  Dr. Campbell discusses the impact of leaf arrangement, measuring light in a canopy, and why we measure PAR.

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