Initial Publication Date: June 29, 2011

Activity Suite: How Does The Greenhouse Effect Influence Global Temperature?

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 Erik Christensen, Dave Dempsey, Sara Harris and Steve Taylor

This is a suite of activities designed to address the concepts that address how the greenhouse effect influences global temperature. These activities can be used individually or combined as desired.
Course type:
introductory undergraduate, any size class
These activities teach: Climate Literacy Essential Principle 2: Climate is regulated by complex interactions among components of the Earth system


These activities all focus on articulating the following overarching goal:

EXPLAIN how the greenhouse effect works based on properties of atmospheric constituents and energy budget balancing.

Students should be able to do the following:

  1. DESCRIBE how incoming and outgoing electromagnetic radiation interacts with Earth's surface and atmosphere.
  2. CONTRAST the role greenhouse gases play compared to main atmospheric constituents.
  3. BALANCE a radiation budget by accounting for reflection, absorption, and transmission of radiation.
  4. PREDICT how changes in greenhouse gases will affect a planet's mean surface temperature.

The activities included in this suite are:

What is the Earth's Average Temperature? (Goals 1 & 3)

What Makes a Greenhouse Gas a Greenhouse Gas? (Goal 2)

Absorption by Atmospheric Gases of Incoming and Outgoing Radiation (Goal 2)

The Greenhouse Effect: Why is the Earth's Surface So Much Warmer than the Earth as Seen from Space? (Goals & 4)

Assumed Prerequisite Knowledge:

1. Composition of the atmosphere
2. Different forms of energy (particularly heat and radiative energy)
3. Energy is conserved but can be transformed from one form to another
4. The electromagnetic spectrum
5. The Stefan-Boltzmann law of radiation (expressed qualitatively)
6. Radiative emission spectra for the sun and the earth (including Wien's Law)
  • Solar radiation versus terrestrial (longwave infrared) radiation
7. Radiative absorption spectra for different atmospheric constituents
8. Budgets (balanced and unbalanced), particularly energy budgets


  1. Assessment Ideas categorized by learning goal: Assessment Ideas (Microsoft Word 612kB Jun14 11)
  2. Earth Energy Balance Matching Exercise The Earth Energy Balance - Matching (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 132kB Jun10 11)