Comparing Temperature and Solar Radiation for Common Latitudes

Monthly Surface Clear-sky Temperature, March 2000

Image courtesy Live Access Server

To use NASA satellite data to examine the solar radiation received at same latitude locations compared to the surface temperature of each location
Grade Level: 7
Estimated Time for Completing Activity: Two 50 minute class periods
Learning Outcomes:
  • Students will analyze surface temperatures between locations to identify patterns.
  • Students will analyze solar radiation downward flux between locations to identify patterns.
  • Students will examine the patterns and determine variables that may be responsible for differences.
  • Familiarity with reading graphs
  • Understanding longitude and latitude
  • Computers with Internet connection
AP Environmental Science Topics
Lesson Links:

There are various local and regional climates on the Earth’s surface. While the overall climate of the Earth is often the focus of research and discussion, individual local climates are important to consider when thinking of indigenous plants and animals. Climate is a function determined by variables such as latitude, elevation, relief, distance from large bodies of water, and prevailing winds. Additional factors that can play a role include cloud cover, cloud height as well as precipitation.

For many locations around the world, more than one factor helps to define climate in a particular area. The Koppen Classification System (seen in the links section number 8) takes into consideration a wide number of variables when classifying climates around the world. Often it is one particular variable that has the largest influence on climate classification, such as latitude, elevation or even both

One of the major influences on climate are mountains. Mountains have the ability to produce orographic rain. This is precipitation that is a result of warm moist air that is forced to rise up a mountain. As this warm moist air rises it cools and precipitation falls as a result of condensation. Mountains also have the ability to block or shadow the rain on the downwind side of the mountain as in the western United States. In a similar fashion, mountains are able to block large prevailing winds and shield regions of the world from frigid polar air. This is the case in portions of Europe.

In this lesson, you will choose two locations, preferably in different climate zones, and compare real NASA satellite data for those two locations. The data comes from the International Satellite Cloud Climatology Project (ISSCP) and the Surface Radiation Budget Project (SRB).


1. Connect to Google Earth and select a minimum of 2 locations that have the same latitude. If you do not have access to Google Earth, you may try the Lookup table provided in the Lesson Links. Record the longitude and latitude of each location.
2. Connect to the MY NASA DATA Live Access Server (LAS) using the link above.
3. Select Land Surface and then Surface Radiation.
4. Check the box beside Monthly Surface Clear-sky SW Downward Flux (SRB) and hit the Next link.
5. From the menu at the left side of the screen under Line Plots select ‘Time Series’.
6. Click on the radio button at the top of the screen next to ‘Update Plot’.
7. Input the latitude and longitude for you first location below the upper left plot. There will be a compass rose directly under the plot.
8. Select the time range you wish to examine and hit the Next link (Make sure to choose a time range no earlier than 1995, as you will be required to compare this with another data set that does not go back as far as this data set). Be sure pop-up windows are allowed on your browser. Look at the graph, taking note that the axis values may differ. Make any changes you wish to the data range and hit Next for a new graph.
9. Click on ‘update plots’ from the menu at the top of the screen. Note you might have to re select ‘Line plots’ from the menu to the left of the plots and then ‘Update Plots’ at the top again.
10. When you have the graph, you will want print it for later use.
11. Follow this same procedure but with your second data set.
12. You will be selecting Land Surface, Surface Conditions and then Monthly Surface Clear-sky Temperature (ISCCP)
13. Click ‘Print’ in the upper right corner of the screen and then print your graph.
14. Now you will be able to do a side by side comparison of the two plots. Be sure to note the maximum and minimum values of the axis.


1. Examine your graph on solar radiation. How does the amount of solar radiation at each location compare?
2. What is the detectable pattern in the graph?
3. What explanation can you give for this pattern?
4. Your second graph compares the monthly average surface temperature at each location. Based on your solar radiation graph, what would you expect the second graph to say?
5. Examine your graph on the surface temperature differences. How do the temperatures compare between the locations?
6. How is this similar to or different from your prediction?
7. You should have found that both locations receive nearly identical amounts of solar radiation. However, their temperatures differ and can do so very dramatically. What explanation can you give for this data?
8. What other variables, besides solar radiation, can you identify as possibly having an affect on surface temperature?


1. Compare your graphs and conclusions with other students in your cooperative group. How were your findings similar or different from the others?
2. Use Google Earth to identify locations with similar elevations, proximity to oceans, etc. as well as the same latitude. Create graphs of solar radiation and temperature difference to see if there are still other variables that need exploration.
3. Explore the LAS and locate other parameters that may provide you with information to identify variables that may be responsible for temperature differences between your locations.

Lesson plan contributed by Ken Mattingly, Mount Vernon, Kentucky

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