How Does the Earth's Energy Budget Relate to Polar Ice?

Shrinking ice endangers polar bear habitat

Image courtesy NASA

To use satellite data to understand how the net flux of the radiation budget relates to the amount of ice present in the Northern Hemisphere
Grade Level: 5 – 7
Estimated Time for Completing Activity: 50 minutes
Learning Outcomes:
  • Students will use real satellite data to discover trends in data maps.
  • Students will correlate two data parameters to discover a relationship.
  • Computer with Internet access
  • Color Printer
AP Environmental Science Topics
Lesson Links:

The Sun heats the Earth, but the Earth also emits some of the heat back into space. The net amount of energy determines not only seasonal weather, but also climate trends. According to NOAA, monthly snow and ice amounts have declined over the past decade. By matching maps of snow and ice amounts with maps of net radiation flux for the same time frame, this lesson will give students the opportunity to explore how the net radiation flux has affected the snow and ice amounts in the Northern Hemisphere, as well as how the presence of snow can affect the net radiation flux due to surface reflection.


1. In a group of two students, watch the Lesson Link for the Blue Man Group clip and discuss your concerns about global climate change in the polar regions of Earth.

2. Using the Live Access Server, make maps for Monthly Snow Ice Amount and Net Radiation Flux during January of the years 2001-2005. Each student group might be assigned one map to create (based on 20 students per class).

To do this:
a. Click on the Lesson Link above for the Live Access Server.
b. Depending on your assignment,
Select Cryosphere, Monthly Snow Ice Amount (ISSCP), OR Select
Atmosphere, Atmospheric Radiation, Top of Atmosphere (TOA), Top of Atmosphere All-Sky, Monthly TOA All-Sky Net Flux (CERES EBAF).
(If you are not automatically prompted with parameter choices click on ‘Choose Data Set’ in the upper left hand corner of the screen)
c. Select your time scale: your assigned year in January.
d. Click the radio button next to ‘Update Plot’ to generate the map. Save or print your map.

3. As a class with the full set of maps, answer the questions below.


1. For each year, where does the snow extend? What are the values for the same locations on the Net Radiation Flux map?

2. What trend do you see in the pattern of high and low snow amounts between 2001 – 2005? What differences do you see? What might explain the trends and differences?

3. Based on what you observed in the maps so far, how much snow and ice cover do you predict there will be in the next five years? In the next ten years?

4. NOAA reports that the snow data shows an anomaly for the winter of 2007-2008 when compared to the previous trend. (See Lesson Links) How might you explain the higher snow ice amounts?


1. Do a class experiment about the greenhouse effect in a jar using the Global Climate Change Activity worksheet (see Lesson Link).

2. Review the PowerPoint presentation about what you can do about global warming (see Lesson Link). Discuss as a class, and set personal goals at home.

Lesson plan contributed by Kathy Doerner and Terri Wolski

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