The use of reflected ultrasound in the diagnosis of pulmonary disease has been limited due to the strong reflection and high absorption of acoustic energy by alveoli containing air. Our study reports the ultrasonic characteristics of normal and diseased pulmonary surface. Two measurements, the coefficient of pulmonary reflection and the tissue frequency signature, were studied with specially calibrated instuments. The coefficient of pulmonary reflection in 23 normal subjects was - 19.6 +/- 0.1 dB at 5.5 MHz. In ten patients with documented pulmonary emboli, the coefficient of pulmonary reflection was -47.4 +/- 0.1 dB, significantly less than normal (P less than 0.1). The tissue frequency signature in 18 normal subjects was specular at higher and nonspecular at lower frequencies, with a typical dip at 5.2 MHz. In patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, the tissue frequency signature was flat, and the typical dip was absent. In patients with pulmonary emboli, the characteristic shape of the tissue frequency signature was preserved, but there was a generalized loss of magnitude of the reflection. Thus, our preliminary data indicate that reflected ultrasound provides a noninvasive method for differentiating normal from diseased pulmonary surfaces.