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How Greenhouse Gases Absorb Heat

American Museum of Natural History, American Museum of Natural History

In this experiment, students will observe two model atmospheres: one with normal atmospheric composition and another with an elevated concentration of carbon dioxide. These two contained atmospheres will be exposed to light energy from a sunny window or from a lamp. The carbon dioxide is produced by a simple reaction and tested using bromothymol blue (BTB).

Activity takes one 45-minute class period.

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Learn more about Teaching Climate Literacy and Energy Awareness»


Greenhouse Effect
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Greenhouse Gases
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Grade Level

High School (9-12)
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Activity can be adapted for middle school and college-level audiences.

Climate Literacy
About Teaching Climate Literacy

Greenhouse effect
About Teaching Principle 2
Other materials addressing 2c

Energy Literacy

Environmental quality is impacted by energy choices.
Other materials addressing:
7.3 Environmental quality.
Fossil and bio fuels are organic matter that contain energy captured from sunlight.
Other materials addressing:
4.3 Fossil and bio fuels contain energy captured from sunlight.
Greenhouse gases affect energy flow through the Earth system.
Other materials addressing:
2.6 Greenhouse gases affect energy flow.

Excellence in Environmental Education Guidelines

1. Questioning, Analysis and Interpretation Skills:C) Collecting information
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C) Collecting information.
2. Knowledge of Environmental Processes and Systems:2.1 The Earth as a Physical System:C) Energy
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C) Energy.

Benchmarks for Science Literacy
Learn more about the Benchmarks

Greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, such as carbon dioxide and water vapor, are transparent to much of the incoming sunlight but not to the infrared light from the warmed surface of the earth. When greenhouse gases increase, more thermal energy is trapped in the atmosphere, and the temperature of the earth increases the light energy radiated into space until it again equals the light energy absorbed from the sun.
Explore the map of concepts related to this benchmark

Notes From Our Reviewers The CLEAN collection is hand-picked and rigorously reviewed for scientific accuracy and classroom effectiveness. Read what our review team had to say about this resource below or learn more about how CLEAN reviews teaching materials
Teaching Tips | Science | Pedagogy | Technical Details

Teaching Tips

  • Make sure the jar lids are sealed.
  • The experiment could be performed with other inexpensive containers.
  • Educator may need to discuss how BTB acts as an indicator.
  • A video of a similar experiment: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ge0jhYDcazY.

About the Science

  • This straight-forward experiment allows students to measure the temperature effects of a enriched CO2 environment in a closed container.
  • Unlike many similar exercises, the experiment makes it clear that the reaction is producing carbon dioxide before it enters the test jar. The use of a control jar is an important part of this design.
  • While the resource talks about greenhouse gases, the experiment itself is really only focused on carbon dioxide. The educator should make this more clear by discussing that the other greenhouse gases behave like carbon dioxide.

About the Pedagogy

  • Activity contains both the practical experiment and the discussion of its implications.
  • Students work in teams.
  • A simple, direct experiment with a clear focus; very well organized. Clear and concise directions for students.
  • Educator will need to develop their own assessment strategy as none is provided.
  • Cues educators to what students should know going into the activity. Good educator resource/information page; however, doesn't provide much scaffolding for student graphs.

Technical Details/Ease of Use

  • The instructions and the figures are helpful.
  • While the experimental setup should be readily available in a well stocked lab, it might require a little work for less prepared labs.

Related URLs These related sites were noted by our reviewers but have not been reviewed by CLEAN

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