Interactions Within Earth's Atmosphere

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SWBAT describe what happens when solar radiation interacts with Earth's surface; explain how greenhouse gases cause Earth's temperature to warm; and explore data about changes in atmospheric CO2 levels.

Big Idea

Using computer models, students explore how Earth's surface and greenhouse gases interact with radiation.

Getting Started

This two-day lesson includes the second of five modules on climate change from the Concord Consortium. You could choose to follow the modules in the order presented if you like. I chose to break them apart to fit into the flow of my unit on climate change.

In addition student take a more in depth look at greenhouse gasses and the natural and anthropogenic sources of each. 

In this activity, students use computational models to explore how Earth's surface and greenhouse gases interact with radiation. Students explore how solar radiation interacts with Earth's surface and atmosphere by using interactive computational models. Then they interpret real-world changes in atmospheric carbon dioxide over short and long time frames.

Students will be able to:

  • Describe what happens when solar radiation interacts with Earth's surface and atmosphere.
  • Explain how greenhouse gasses cause Earth's temperature to warm.
  • Explore and critically analyze real-world data about changes in atmospheric carbon dioxide levels over Earth's history.

The website says that each module should take about 45 minutes to complete. My students have not needed this much time. 35 minutes is more realistic. I would recommend planning on time to debrief and discuss each module in which case you could spend an entire 50-55 minute class per module. 

I have attached the Portal User Guide to setting up a teacher account and creating a class for your reference. 

In addition, there is the What will be Earth's climate in the future? teacher guide.

The modules address the Science and Engineering Practices (NGSS) as well as the Crosscutting Concepts. 

Science and Engineering Practices:

1. Asking questions (for science) and defining problems (for engineering)

2. Developing and using models

3. Planning and carrying out investigations

4. Analyzing and interpreting data

5. Constructing explanations (for science) and designing solutions (for engineering)

6. Engaging in argument from evidence

7. Obtaining, evaluating, and communicating information

Crosscutting Concepts:

1. Patterns

2. Cause and effect: Mechanism and explanation

3. Scale, proportion, and quantity

4. Systems and system models

5. Energy and matter: Flows, cycles, and conservation

7. Stability and change

In addition to the following disciplinary Core Ideas

ESS3.D: Global Climate Change

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-ESS3-5)


  • Computers with internet access.
  • Gas files task cards and response sheet.

NOTE: This activity runs entirely in a Web browser. Preferred browsers are: Google Chrome (versions 5 and above), Safari (versions 4 and above), Firefox (version 3.6.10 and above), and Internet Explorer (version 7, 8, or higher; note that version 6 or below does not work). 


15 minutes

If you have not introduced your students to the Greenhouse Effect, you may want to teach a lesson on the topic before starting this one. My Heat Transfer - Radiation, and the Greenhouse Effect lesson covers this. 

Begin class showing the following video (run time is 2:00).

I ask students to take notes of the following while watching the video: 

  • What is a greenhouse gas?
  • How do greenhouse gases keep Earth's atmosphere warm?
  • What happens when there are too many greenhouse gasses? Too few?
  • Why should we care about greenhouse gas levels?

 Show the video then discuss their responses. 



40 minutes

Have your students get computers and login into the website

I created the Activity 2- Interactions within the atmosphere handout to help in walking students through the process of logging in and starting module.

Students explore the questions: 

  • What happens when solar radiation interacts with Earth's surface and atmosphere?
  • How do greenhouse gasses cause Earth's temperature to warm?
  • How have temperatures increased over time as greenhouse gas levels have increased? 

The activity takes about 35-45 minutes to complete. The site saves student work as they progress, so if they need to stop and start say on a second day or at home their work is not lost. 



In the video below two students share how looking at data through the use of simulations helps shape their understanding of climate change. 


45 minutes

I begin the second day by reviewing student responses to the computer module before moving on. 

In this next activity, student look at data and graphs to determine the quantities and sources of different greenhouse gases. 

There are five greenhouse gases that will be discussed in this activity.  Students should have a task card, a recording sheet and the first 4 resource cards.  Resource cards 5 and 6 show emission profiles by gas and source for developed vs developing countries and fossil fuel usage per capita.  They can be used if you have the time and inclination.

Working on groups of 4-5 students, they are to discuss the questions on the task card and fill in the response sheet by looking at each of the Gas Files. 

  • Wrap up this activity with some discussion questions:
  • What are the primary sources of greenhouse gas emissions?
  • Which greenhouse gasses have accumulated more in the past decades? 
  • What is driving these changes?

More information on Greenhouse gases:

Water vapor (H2O). The most abundant greenhouse gas.  It acts as a feedback to the climate. Water vapor increases as the Earth's atmosphere warms, but so does the possibility of clouds and precipitation, making these some of the most important feedback mechanisms to the greenhouse effect.

Carbon dioxide (CO2). A minor but very important component of the atmosphere (in terms of concentration). Carbon dioxide is released through natural processes such as respiration and volcano eruptions and through human activities such as deforestation, land use changes, and burning fossil fuels. Humans have increased atmospheric CO2 concentration by more than a third since the Industrial Revolution began. This is the most important long-lived "forcing" of climate change.

Methane (CH4). A hydrocarbon gas produced both through natural sources and human activities, including the decomposition of wastes in landfills, agriculture, and especially rice cultivation, as well as cattle digestion and manure management associated with domestic livestock. On a molecule-for-molecule basis, methane is a far more active greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, but also one which is much less abundant in the atmosphere.

Nitrous oxide (N2O). A powerful greenhouse gas produced by soil cultivation practices, especially the use of commercial and organic fertilizers, fossil fuel combustion, nitric acid production, and biomass burning.

Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). Synthetic compounds of entirely of industrial origin used in a number of applications, but now largely regulated in production and release to the atmosphere by international agreement for their ability to contribute to destruction of the ozone layer. CFCs are also greenhouse gases and so are the compounds we have made to replace them.