Climate and Earth's Energy Balance

Part C: Explore the Greenhouse Effect

Once incoming solar energy reaches Earth's atmosphere, what parts of the Earth system absorb and hold the energy, warming the planet? In this lab, you will explore some of the elements that absorb solar energy, the greenhouse gases (GHG). These gases include: carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and water vapor. You will see that each greenhouse gas responds differently to electromagnetic radiation. This is an important asset of our current atmospheric composition. It allows some forms of solar radiation to pass through the "atmospheric window," to the planet's surface and also back out to space, while retaining other wavelengths of energy to warm the atmosphere and Earth's surface. In this lab, you will further your understanding of the Earth's energy balance that you investigated in the previous labs.

First, watch the narrated video, describing the importance of the greenhouse effect in making the planet habitable, or able to support life. After viewing the video, discuss the question listed below with your classmates.

The Sun's Energy - Earth's Heat Balance from NSF


After viewing the video, discuss the following question with your neighbor or classmates:

  • How do greenhouse gases impact life on Earth?

What are the greenhouse gases?

Next, learn more about greenhouse gases and how they contribute to global warming by viewing short video and reading a background article linked below. Click the links below to read the article and view the interactive. Once you have finished reading, answer the Checking In questions below.


How Greenhouse Gases Warm the Planet from LiveScience. Note: There is no audio narrative.

2. The NASA article, A blanket around the Earth gives detailed information about the greenhouse gases and explains the expanded greenhouse effect.

Checking In

  • Select the greenhouse gases described in the article: 'A blanket around the Earth' from the list below. When you have made your selections, click the Check Answers button.
    [INCORRECT] Nitrogen is not a greenhouse gas. It is inert.
    [INCORRECT] Oxygen, while an important gas for life on Earth, is not a greenhouse gas.
  • Which of the greenhouse gases (GHG) is most abundant in the atmosphere?
  • Select the man-made, or anthropogenic greenhouse gases from the list below.
    [INCORRECT] Water vapor is naturally occurring. However, it is an important greenhouse gas. Its increased concentrations are a result of increased temperatures.
    [CORRECT]CFCs are entirely man-made. They were once commonly used in refrigerants, and are now regulated.
    [INCORRECT]Carbon Dioxide is naturally occurring, but humans have increased the concentrations of the gas in the atmosphere.
    [INCORRECT]Nitrogen is not a greenhouse gas. It is inert.
    [INCORRECT]Methane is a naturally occurring GHG. Its sources include rotting vegetation.
    [CORRECT]Nitrous Oxide is both naturally occurring and a man-made gas. It is a byproduct of the production of fertilizer.
    [INCORRECT]Oxygen, while an important gas for life on Earth, is not a greenhouse gas.
  • Which of the long-lived greenhouse gases is the most important ?

Investigate the greenhouse effect

Now that you have some background information about the factors that control the greenhouse effect, you are ready to try an experiment! Begin by reading the instructions and information in the flash interactive, shown below.

Explore the features of the animation

Greenhouse Gas Concentration vs. Temperature from TERC & informmotion
*This video replaces a Flash interactive.
To view this interactive on an iPad, use this link to download/open the free TERC EarthLabs App.

Once you are second screen of the interactive, there are three sliders to control the concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Move them and observe the changes that occur in the graphic. Note both the changes in the temperature and the color of the atmosphere. 

After you have explored the sliders impact on temperature, use the three radio buttons to view Greenhouse Gas concentrations and average Earth surface temperatures; record your answers to the Stop and Think questions, below. 

For more information about the data used in the interactive click the info button at the top of the screen, or view the information shown below.

The Atmosphere Today

Begin with the Year button set to Today. Note the average global (land and ocean) temperature, shown in the thermometer above the graphic. Record the concentration of the three primary greenhouse gases, CO2, CH4, and N2O in the table on your answer sheet. Note that the N2O and CH4 concentrations are in parts per billion. In other words, there is very little of these two gases in the atmosphere as compared to CO2.

The Atmosphere in 1850

Next, click the 1850 radio button to select the period around 1850. Note the global temperature as well as the composition of the atmosphere. Record the composition of the atmosphere in the table on your answer sheet.

The Atmosphere in 2100

Next, click the 2100 radio button to select the period around 2100. Note the global temperature as well as the composition of the atmosphere. Record the composition of the atmosphere in the table on your answer sheet.

Stop and Think

8. Complete the table below. Record the average global temperature and each of the greenhouse gas concentrations.

Year Temperature CO2 CH4N2O

Greenhouse gas slider

Once you have a sense of these three atmospheric states, explore the variable GHG concentration slider. As you reduced the greenhouse gases to zero, what happened to the temperature of Earth?

Stop and Think

9. Why are greenhouse gases (GHG) important to life on the planet? 

10. In the simulation, which was the most potent (i.e., caused the greatest change in temperature) of the three greenhouse gases, how did you discover this? (Hint: note the concentrations of the gases.)

Altering the energy balance

Both instrumental and satellite data show each decade since 1980 has been warmer than the preceding decade, with the most recent (2010–19) being around 0.2°C warmer than the previous (2000–09). The seven warmest years on record have all occurred in the past seven years, since 2014, and 2020 was among the three warmest years on record since the 1800s. In fact, 9 of the 10 warmest years on record have occurred during the 21st century. (Source: NOAA State of the Climate 2020) What could be causing the heating of the planet? Which parts of the balance have changed? This NASA video, Piecing Together the Temperature Puzzle, (5:48 minutes) explains the scientific understanding of how various elements of the Earth-Sun system, including changes in the solar cycle, alterations in snow and cloud cover, and rising levels of heat-trapping gases, may be contributing to these new records. 

As you watch the video, consider how the individual changes in Earth's climate are like a series of puzzle pieces that, when connected, begin to form a recognizable pattern. As you watch this video, you will also gain an appreciation for the contribution that NASA satellites have provided towards the solving of the global climate puzzle. 

Preview the following discussion questions before watching the video. Use the controller to review sections of the video as needed. 

Courtesy of NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center. Piecing Together the Temperature Puzzle 


After completing this lab, discuss your thoughts about the material covered in this lab with your classmates. Consider the following questions:

  • Why do we study the planet as one interconnected system?
  • How do we know that the Earth's climate is changing, and what is the role of greenhouse gases in that change?

Optional Extensions

Another, more complex, greenhouse gas interactive can be accessed here: Greenhouse gas interactive. This JAVA applet has several layers of complexity and includes a visualization of molecular interactions with photons. 

Additional information about Greenhouse gases, their sources, and role in global warming can be found on this NOAA page. 

The following graphic shows the sources of the greenhouse gases by sector. An interesting exercise would be to research each sector and consider ways to reduce the emissions of these gases.