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Understanding Albedo

Geophysical Institute at University of Fairbanks

This activity teaches students about the albedo of surfaces and how it relates to the ice-albedo feedback effect. During an experiment, students observe the albedo of two different colored surfaces by measuring the temperature change of a white and black surface under a lamp.

Activity takes about one class period. Additional materials are needed.

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Grade Level

Middle (6-8)
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Resource indicates that the appropriate grade level is 9-12. The reviewers thought that the activity is better suited for middle school.

Climate Literacy
About Teaching Climate Literacy

Sunlight warms the planet
About Teaching Principle 1
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Equilibrium and feedback loops in climate system
About Teaching Principle 2
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Energy Literacy

The energy of a system or object that results in its temperature is called thermal energy.
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1.2 Thermal energy.
Earth's weather and climate is mostly driven by energy from the Sun.
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2.3 Earth's climate driven by the Sun.

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:A) Processes that shape the Earth
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A) Processes that shape the Earth.
2. Knowledge of Environmental Processes and Systems:2.1 The Earth as a Physical System:C) Energy
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C) Energy.

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

  • The educator should explain the limitations of the model because they are using a light bulb, which is different than the radiation from the Sun.
  • The educator could conduct activity outdoors rather than using a 60W light bulb so as to avoid confusion between solar radiation and "heat."

About the Science

  • The activity nicely illustrates the effect of albedo in a simple way.
  • Using a lamp to simulate radiation from the sun may promote misconceptions such as: Higher albedo surfaces reflect more "heat." To prevent this, educators should clarify that this activity is an attempt to model the effect of different surface albedos. It does not represent the actual phenomenon.
  • Useful part of activity: Educator discusses why the ice-albedo feedback effect is a positive feedback loop that could contribute to climate change.
  • Comment from scientist: Be careful of the wording when explaining feedback loops: A positive feedback reinforces the initial change whichever direction. So using increases or decreases can be potentially confusing. Here it is worded correctly in the sense of increasing the effect of the system but students might still get confused, maybe use the word magnifies instead of increases and counteracts instead of decreases.
  • Comment from scientist: Activity Procedure 3 - It's important to note that an increase in temperature can cause snow and ice to start melting earlier in the year. In fact, this is where the albedo effect plays a bigger role, because melt really gets going during late spring and early summer when the sun is strongest and, therefore, the effect of albedo is strongest. By the time snow and ice start to form, it is generally September or later and the sun is already on its way to setting in the Arctic. The later freeze-up is affected to some extent by the albedo, but a bigger effect, especially for sea ice in the ocean, is the surface has heated more and is too warm initially to form snow or ice.
  • Be careful with the wording that is used in activity - "ice forms" but snow doesn't "form on the earth" it "falls."
  • Background information might need to be supplemented by educator.

About the Pedagogy

  • Students are encouraged to hypothesize before the experiment, but the procedure is step-by-step rather than open-ended.

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

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