CLEAN > CLEAN Network > Tools for Educators > Activities Created at CLEAN Workshops > What makes a greenhouse gas a greenhouse gas?

What makes a greenhouse gas a greenhouse gas?

This activity is part of the community collection of teaching materials on climate and energy topics.

These materials were submitted by faculty as part of the CLEAN Climate Workshop, held in June, 2011 and are not yet part of the CLEAN collection of reviewed resources.
Contributed by: Sara Harris, Department of Earth & Ocean Sciences, University of British Columbia

Explore the interaction of different atmospheric gases with different types of radiation.
Course Type:
Introductory level university, any size class
This activity teaches Climate Literacy Essential Principle 2: Climate is regulated by complex interactions among components of the Earth system

This activity teaches Concept C - Greenhouse Effect. The amount of solar energy absorbed or radiated by Earth is modulated by the atmosphere and depends on its composition. Greenhouse gases— such as water vapor, carbon dioxide, and methane— occur naturally in small amounts and absorb and release heat energy more efficiently than abundant atmospheric gases like nitrogen and oxygen. Small increases in carbon dioxide concentration have a large effect on the climate system.


Students should be able to do the following:
1. CONTRAST how greenhouse gases interact with visible and infrared radiation compared to major atmospheric constituents
2. DESCRIBE what happens to photons that are absorbed and re-emitted by greenhouse gases


This activity uses the Greenhouse Effect on-line interactive simulation from the PhET group at the University of Colorado.

Activity 1: Students use the simulation to rank five atmospheric gases (CH4, CO2, H2O, N2, and O2) based on each molecules' tendency to absorb (1) infrared radiation, and (2) visible radiation. Students decide how to use the simulation to collect data to support their rankings, and they report both their approach and their results.

Activity 2: Students decide how to use the simulation to collect data that describes what happens to photons that are absorbed and re-emitted by greenhouse gases.

This activity could be used as:
  • a pre-class exercise with reporting of results in a course management system prior to a followup class
  • an in-class individual or group exercise, with reporting of results in class
  • a homework assignment

Instructors provide instruction sheets to students, compile submissions for class discussion, and assess student learning. This activity can be used in the early stages of learning about the greenhouse effect.

Teaching Materials

Student handout (Microsoft Word 45kB Jun15 11)
Answer key and instructor tips (Microsoft Word 63kB Jun15 11)


Ideas for Assessment questions (Microsoft Word 50kB Jun15 11)

Connections to other Activities

This activity is one of a suite of five activities designed to address the concepts that address how the greenhouse effect influences global temperature (Principle 2, Concept C) which can be used individually or combined as desired.

This activity can be used in conjunction with the Greenhouse Gas Demonstration.


This activity is based on two activities in the PhET collection:
For more information about the pedagogy of using simulations, see SERC's module on Teaching with PhET Simulations, authored by Sam McKagan, based on material from the PhET Team.