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Modeling Earth's Energy Balance
http://serc.carleton.edu/NAGTWorkshops/complexsystems/activities/energy_balance_model.html

Kirsten Menking, Vassar College , Science Education Resource Center, On the Cutting Edge

In this activity, learners use the STELLA box modeling software to determine Earth's temperature based on incoming solar radiation and outgoing terrestrial radiation. Starting with a simple black body model, the exercise gradually adds complexity by incorporating albedo, then a 1-layer atmosphere, then a 2-layer atmosphere, and finally a complex atmosphere with latent and sensible heat fluxes. With each step, students compare the modeled surface temperature to Earth's actual surface temperature, thereby providing a check on how well each increasingly complex model captures the physics of the actual system.

Activity takes about two lab periods plus homework assignment. Licenses for STELLA modeling software required.

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Learn more about Teaching Climate Literacy and Energy Awareness»

Climate Literacy
About Teaching Climate Literacy

When Earth emits the same amount of energy as it absorbs, its energy budget is in balance, and its average temperature remains stable.
About Teaching Principle 1
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Sunlight reaching the Earth can heat the land, ocean, and atmosphere. Some of that sunlight is reflected back to space by the surface, clouds, or ice. Much of the sunlight that reaches Earth is absorbed and warms the planet.
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Sun is the primary source of energy for Earth’s climate system
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mate is regulated by complex interactions among components of the Earth system
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understanding of the climate system is improved through observations, theoretical studies, and modeling
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Energy Literacy

Energy is a quantity that is transferred from system to system.
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1.1 Energy is a quantity.
Energy is a physical quantity that follows precise natural laws.
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Energy is a physical quantity.
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.
Physical processes on Earth are the result of energy flow through the Earth system.
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Physical processes on Earth are the result of energy flow .

Excellence in Environmental Education Guidelines

1. Questioning, Analysis and Interpretation Skills:G) Drawing conclusions and developing explanations
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G) Drawing conclusions and developing explanations.
1. Questioning, Analysis and Interpretation Skills:B) Designing investigations
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B) Designing investigations.
1. Questioning, Analysis and Interpretation Skills:C) Collecting information
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C) Collecting information.
1. Questioning, Analysis and Interpretation Skills:F) Working with models and simulations
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F) Working with models and simulations.
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.

Benchmarks for Science Literacy
Learn more about the Benchmarks

Light and other electromagnetic waves can warm objects. How much an object's temperature increases depends on how intense the light striking its surface is, how long the light shines on the object, and how much of the light is absorbed.
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

  • Basic knowledge of the modeling software and understanding of modeling needs to be built in the students before handing them this assignment.
  • Lesson should be completed by a class discussion about modeling, its strengths and limitations, as well as a broader understanding of Earth's energy balance.

About the Science

  • Background readings for students are not available in digital version, but the reference is provided.
  • Step-by-step instructions will help students learn in detail about the effects of the atmosphere and appreciate the complexity of Earth's energy balance.
  • Comment from expert scientist: The main strength is in starting with a highly idealized system and then incrementally adding complexity towards a model that looks more like the real world. This stepwise process will enable students to grasp the basics and then to understand the roles of additional processes in Earth's energy budget.

About the Pedagogy

  • Use of STELLA model is engaging for students. Students need to be savvy in modeling in order to complete this activity.
  • Grouping students with different knowledge of modeling together will likely help the weaker students to complete the activity.
  • Students need to have sufficient quantitative skills to be able to master this activity.

Technical Details/Ease of Use


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