Radiation Color Plot

The Sun

Image courtesy NASA

To engage students in reading a color plot of Earth’s absorption of the sun’s radiation.
Grade Level: 3 – 5
Estimated Time for Completing Activity: One 30 minute class period.
Learning Outcomes:
  • Students will discuss and analyze the sun’s radiation data from 2004
  • Students will identify areas of a color plot which show highest and lowest absorptions of Sun’s radiation
  • Students will evaluate causes for difference in absorption rates at different points around the world
  • Students will draw conclusions about factors effecting absorption of sun’s radiation
  • Students will manipulate data sets from MyNASAData website via printed copy
  • Knowledge that energy from the sun is responsible for heating land, air, and water of the Earth
  • Basic knowledge of names and locations of continents (or posted reference sheet)
  • General knowledge of difference between absorption and reflection
Lesson Links:

Energy from the sun reaches the Earth and some is absorbed by the air, land, and water. Some of the energy is reflected back into space, meaning it does not heat the land, air, or water.


Tips provided under teacher notes section

Pre-Lesson Prep: Students will need access to the color plot

1. Hand out and/or display color plot for students to view. Explain that you will be viewing a color plot of the sun’s energy.
2. Briefly describe what the color plot is showing students. Take a look at the scale to the right of the color plot. This shows how much of the sun’s energy is reflected back into space. That means that the land, water, or air in its path, is not heated by this energy.
3. Have students verbalize what color indicates the least amount of sun’s energy (red) and which color means the most amount of sun’s energy is absorbed (purple)
4. Remind students that the high numbers mean that a lot of the sun’s energy is bouncing off the Earth and back into space. Lower numbers mean that more of the sun’s energy is being used to heat the land, air, or water.
5. Have students make a list with a partner of areas with little energy absorption and large amounts of energy absorption.
6. Have pairs share with another pair.
7. Bring the class together to discuss ideas further. Point out Antarctica. Ask students whether Antarctica receives a lot or a little of the sun’s energy? (very little)
8. Ask students what type of weather or land (biome) would best describe Antarctica. (cold, tundra, snowy, windy)
9. Return student attention to the time of the graph which is October 2004. In the Southern Hemisphere October is Spring time. This means that the Southern hemisphere is slightly titled closer to the sun. It should receive more energy from the sun that the Northern Hemisphere.
10. Take a closer look at the map. Antarctica is reflecting more sun back into space than most other areas of the world.
11. Connect these ideas for the students with one or two sentences. Example: Antarctica reflects about 70% of Earth’s energy, so it is not heated well by the sun.
(This is a complicated concept. The main idea for the students to understand is that the bright, snowy land cover of Antarctica causes the sun’s energy to be reflected back into space rather than absorbed)

12. Ask students to find a place that absorbs most of the Sun’s energy. (answers will vary, any areas with blue or purple coloring is best)
13. Have students explain how they know it absorbs a lot of the sun’s energy. (answers will vary, but they should reference the map coloring)


(embedded in lesson)
What color indicates the least amount of the sun’s energy is absorbed?

What color indicates the largest amount of the sun’s energy is absorbed?

Does Antarctica absorb a little or a lot of energy from the sun?

What type of weather does Antarctica usually experience?

Which biome best describes Antarctica’s land?


Provide the same color plot over a few different months or years. Have students track changes they observe. Connect this idea to Earth’s tilted axis and seasonal change.

Lesson plan contributed by Becky Schnekser, MY NASA DATA Team

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