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Energy Balance Climate Model: Stella Mac and PC

Activity and Starting Point page by R.M. MacKay. Clark College, Physics and Meteorology.
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This material is replicated on a number of sites as part of the SERC Pedagogic Service Project


Students explore a Global Energy Balance Climate Model Using Stella II. Mac and PC archives with Stella Model (GEBM.stm) and Assignment in PDF format are provided. Students can explore how the model planetary surface and atmospheric temperatures respond to variations in solar input, atmospheric and surface albedo, atmospheric water vapor and carbon dioxide, volcanic eruptions, and mixed layer ocean depth. Climate feedbacks such as water vapor or ice-albedo can be turned on or off.

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Learning Goals

The activity provides guided exploration on:
  • Energy balance and radiative equilibrium
  • The concept of radiative forcing
  • Planetary temperature response to variations in:
    • Solar insolation
    • Atmospheric water vapor or carbon dioxide
    • Cloud cover
    • Volcanic eruptions
  • Transient response with different ocean mixed layer depths
  • Climate feedbacks from temperature induced variations in:
    • Atmospheric water vapor
    • Surface ice-albedo
    • Surface Heat Flux.
  • Interpreting and creating loop diagrams to assess feedback behavior.

Context for Use

This activity is appropriate for introductory geoscience courses with climate change content and for students with little mathematical background.

Teaching Materials

Mac Version

Mac Version of Stella Global Energy Balance Assignment ( 85kB Jun5 03)is a complete activity archive (*.sit) with Stella Model and MS word activity document. Save as GEBMMacarchive.sit to your disk and unstuff it with Stuffit expander.

PC Version

PC Version of Stella Global Energy Balance Assignment ( 80kB Jun5 03)is a complete activity archive (*.zip) with Stella Model and MS word activity document. Right click and save to your disk as GEBMPCarchive.zip. You will need WinZip to unzip these files. An evaluation copy of WinZip is available at WinZip.com .

Students can download the free "save disabled" demo version of Stella from High Performance Systems and run the Energy Balance Climate Model on their own computer or in a computer lab.

Teaching Notes and Tips

Students use a pre-made Stella Model in this activity. It is important to build the conceptual framework and clearly identify assumptions and limits of this model in class. Instructors are encouraged to guide students through the development process in an interactive lecture before having them use the model. It would be ideal if students could be guided in such a way that they make similar simplifying assumptions on their own before showing them what the completed Stella model looks like.

This activity takes approximately 3 hours to complete. If you do not have Stella at your school you can download a free demo version of Stella from High Performance Systems, Inc.


Grading the completed activity sheet provided can be used as an assessment of student understanding. The future success of students on other Stella/Modeling related activities is also another useful assessment tool.

References and Resources

Dave Bice has an excellent Global Energy Balance modeling module here Dave Bice's Modeling Earth's Climate System Module (more info) . His module has solid theoretical background and is designed to guide students through the model construction process. Introductory geoscience with a strong high school background in science and mathematics can work through his module quite successfully. The information contained within his module also compliments the material presented in GEBM activity above.

Robert MacKay has improved the Stella Model and activity described on this page, and has converted it to a JAVA based on-line activity. At present it runs on PC and Mac (Safari Browser) platforms with JAVA Runtime Environment installed. The Energy Balance Game is an introductory activity using a variation on the Energy Balance Model environment and is great for introducing concepts related to radiative balance and exchange within the Earth system. A narrated video introduction to the Energy Balance Game is posted on YouTube.

IPCC Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (more info) is a solid reference on climate change issues.