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Modeling Earth's Energy Balance

Kirsten Menking, Vassar College , Kirsten Menking, On the Cutting Edge/SERC

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. Access to STELLA modeling software is required, but a free trial version is available.

Learn more about Teaching Climate Literacy and Energy Awareness»

ngssSee how this Activity supports the Next Generation Science Standards»
High School: 1 Performance Expectation, 3 Disciplinary Core Ideas, 8 Cross Cutting Concepts, 8 Science and Engineering Practices

Climate Literacy
About Teaching Climate Literacy

About Teaching Principle 1
Other materials addressing 1b
About Teaching Principle 1
Other materials addressing 1a
Sun is primary energy
About Teaching Climate Literacy
Other materials addressing Sun is primary energy
Climate is complex
About Teaching Climate Literacy
Other materials addressing Climate is complex
Our understanding of climate
About Teaching Climate Literacy
Other materials addressing Our understanding of climate

Energy Literacy

Other materials addressing:
1.1 Energy is a quantity.
Other materials addressing:
2.3 Earth's climate driven by the Sun.

Excellence in Environmental Education Guidelines

1. Questioning, Analysis and Interpretation Skills:G) Drawing conclusions and developing explanations
Other materials addressing:
G) Drawing conclusions and developing explanations.
1. Questioning, Analysis and Interpretation Skills:B) Designing investigations
Other materials addressing:
B) Designing investigations.
1. Questioning, Analysis and Interpretation Skills:C) Collecting information
Other materials addressing:
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
Other materials addressing:
A) Processes that shape the Earth.
2. Knowledge of Environmental Processes and Systems:2.1 The Earth as a Physical System:C) Energy
Other materials addressing:
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

  • This is an upper-level activity. As such, it requires some prerequisite knowledge of modeling. Familiarity with STELLA modeling software would also be helpful.

About the Science

  • Background readings for students are not available in digital form, but the reference is provided.
  • Step-by-step instructions will help students learn about the dynamics 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 students with less familiarity to complete the activity.
  • Students need to have sufficient quantitative skills to be able to master this activity.

Technical Details/Ease of Use

Next Generation Science Standards See how this Activity supports:

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