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Earth's Albedo and Global Warming

NASA Goddard Space Flight Center Scientific Visualization Studio, USGS (US Geological Survey), NSIDC (National Snow and Ice Data Center)

This interactive visualization adapted from NASA and the U.S. Geological Survey illustrates the concept of albedo, which is the measure of how much solar radiation is reflected from Earth's surface.

Learn more about Teaching Climate Literacy and Energy Awareness»

ngssSee how this Simulation/Interactive supports the Next Generation Science Standards»
Middle School: 5 Disciplinary Core Ideas, 1 Cross Cutting Concept
High School: 2 Disciplinary Core Ideas, 3 Cross Cutting Concepts

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

  • This material could be used as homework or as discussion fodder.

About the Science

  • This interactive activity allows students to learn about how materials, such as snow, ice, and water, differ in their ability to reflect and absorb the sun's energy and how melting polar ice creates a positive feedback loop that accelerates global warming.
  • Students investigate how the presence of pollution, such as soot, lowers the albedo of ice and further increases melting. In addition, they observe the decline in Arctic sea ice cover from 1979–2007 and the effect of melting ice on sea levels.
  • Sea ice has further declined since this resource was produced. For updated conditions, visit the Arctic Sea Ice News page from the National Snow and Ice Data Center.
  • Comments from expert scientist: Gives a good clear overview of albedo, and importantly, the ice albedo feedback. Nicely steps from basic concept of albedo, to role of albedo in the climate system.

About the Pedagogy

  • This interactive visualization is an effective tool that could be used in a discussion or as homework.
  • While not a very dynamic presentation, the visualization is effective.

Technical Details/Ease of Use

  • Images and text are courtesy of NASA/USGS, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Scientific Visualization Studio, and National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC).
  • The visualization is downloadable (size = 43 MB).
  • Background essay and discussion questions are provided.

Next Generation Science Standards See how this Simulation/Interactive supports:

Middle School

Disciplinary Core Ideas: 5

MS-ESS2.D1:Weather and climate are influenced by interactions involving sunlight, the ocean, the atmosphere, ice, landforms, and living things. These interactions vary with latitude, altitude, and local and regional geography, all of which can affect oceanic and atmospheric flow patterns.

MS-ESS2.D3:The ocean exerts a major influence on weather and climate by absorbing energy from the sun, releasing it over time, and globally redistributing it through ocean currents.

MS-ESS3.D1:Human activities, such as the release of greenhouse gases from burning fossil fuels, are major factors in the current rise in Earth’s mean surface temperature (global warming). Reducing the level of climate change and reducing human vulnerability to whatever climate changes do occur depend on the understanding of climate science, engineering capabilities, and other kinds of knowledge, such as understanding of human behavior and on applying that knowledge wisely in decisions and activities.

MS-PS4.B1:When light shines on an object, it is reflected, absorbed, or transmitted through the object, depending on the object’s material and the frequency (color) of the light.

MS-PS4.B2:The path that light travels can be traced as straight lines, except at surfaces between different transparent materials (e.g., air and water, air and glass) where the light path bends.

Cross Cutting Concepts: 1

Energy and Matter

MS-C5.4:The transfer of energy can be tracked as energy flows through a designed or natural system.

High School

Disciplinary Core Ideas: 2

HS-ESS2.A1:Earth’s systems, being dynamic and interacting, cause feedback effects that can increase or decrease the original changes.

HS-ESS2.D4:Current models predict that, although future regional climate changes will be complex and varied, average global temperatures will continue to rise. The outcomes predicted by global climate models strongly depend on the amounts of human-generated greenhouse gases added to the atmosphere each year and by the ways in which these gases are absorbed by the ocean and biosphere.

Cross Cutting Concepts: 3

Energy and Matter

HS-C5.1:The total amount of energy and matter in closed systems is conserved.

HS-C5.2:Changes of energy and matter in a system can be described in terms of energy and matter flows into, out of, and within that system.

HS-C5.3:Energy cannot be created or destroyed—only moves between one place and another place, between objects and/or fields, or between systems.

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