Differences Between Ground and Air Temperatures

land vs. air temps

Image courtesy Lin Chambers

To explore the differences between air temperature near the surface and the ground temperature for different climate regions
Grade Level: 6 – 8
Estimated Time for Completing Activity: 50 minutes
Learning Outcomes:
  • Students will locate real NASA satellite data resources on the Internet.
  • Students will be able to create and use a graph to read and analyze data.
  • Students will be able to conclude information based on the graphs they produce.
  • Familiarity with locating positions on a map based on latitude and longitude coordinates
  • Familiarity with finding information on the Internet
  • General familiarity with CERES Surface Types (see Links)
  • Computer with Internet access
  • Map or Altas
National Standards:
  • Geography: The World in Spatial Terms
  • Math: Data Analysis and Probability
  • Science Content: A Science as Inquiry
  • Science Content: D Earth and Space Science
Virginia Standards of Learning:
  • Sci6.1: The student will plan and conduct investigations in which c) precise and approximate measurements are recorded; h) data are collected, recorded, analyzed, and reported using appropriate metric measurements; and i) data are
    organized and communicated through graphical representation (graphs, charts, and diagrams).
  • Sci6.6: The student will investigate and understand the properties of air and the structure and dynamics of the Earth’s atmosphere.
Lesson Links:

In developing models for climate change and weather prediction, the measurements of surface and near-surface temperature are an important factor in the modeling process. As the Sun heats the Earth’s surface, the atmosphere is warmed from below by the processes of conduction and convection from the surface. However, near-surface air temperature (approximately 10 meters above the surface) is often different than the surface temperature. The different properties of air, land and water, such as density or heat capacity, as well as seasonal changes of the surface type, can explain these differences.

In this lesson, you will explore real NASA satellite data to compare the near-surface air temperature and surface temperature in different climate regions. You will then draw conclusions about the seasonal patterns and the effect of the underlying surface on the air temperature.


Part I: Find temperature data to compare.

1. Click the Lesson Link for the Live Access Server, this will automatically take you to the Advanced Edition.
2. If not automatically prompted with Parameter choices, click ‘Choose Dataset’ in the upper left corner of the screen and then, Select Atmosphere, Atmospheric Temperature, Monthly Near-Surface Air Temperature (ISCCP).
3. Click on ‘Time Series’ under the line plots section to the left of the screen.
4. Change the date range to a single year of your choice.
5. Be sure to click on the radio button next to ‘Update Plot’ button at the top of the screen to see your changes.
6. Save or print the plot for comparison to the next plot you will produce
7. For your second data parameter you will go back to the LAS as in the first two steps above.
8. If not automatically prompted with Parameter choices, click ‘Choose Dataset’ in the upper left corner of the screen and then select Land Surface, Surface Conditions, Monthly Surface Clear-Sky Temperature (ISCCP).
9.Follow procedure steps 3 through 6 above with this parameter.
10. You should not have two plots for comparison

Part II: Find the surface type at your selected location.

1. Return to the Live Access Server.
2. If not automatically prompted with Parameter choices, click ‘Choose Dataset’ in the upper left corner of the screen and then Select Dataset, Land Surface, Surface Cover, Surface Scene Type (CERES SARB).
3. Be sure that Latitude-Longitude is selected to the left of the screen.
4. Select the region for your location (e.g. North America). This can be found by selecting the double downward arrow above the navigation map to the left of the screen.
5. Using the color bar on the right, determine and record the number that corresponds to your location. Note: if it is difficult to pinpoint the number, you may return to the navigation map applet and make the region smaller or larger by using the zoom features.
6. Using the lesson link for CERES Surface Types, determine the surface type that corresponds to your number at your location.


1. Which color line is the ground temperature? Which color line is the air temperature?

2. During which months is the ground temperature greater than the air temperature? During which months is it less?

3. What trends or patterns do you see in your graph?

4. What climate region or surface type is found at your location?

5. Can you explain your results based on the surface type?


1. Repeat the procedure choosing a different location that you know has a very different climate. Do you get different results?

2. Go outside to measure your ground temperature and air temperature. See if you get similar seasonal results to the satellite data. For guidance on how to measure ground and air temperature, see the Lesson Link for the GLOBE protocols.

3. Explore one of the inquiry-based Project Ideas found on the Citizen Scientist section of the MY NASA DATA website.

Lesson plan contributed by Tara Kisiel, Chicopee, Massachusetts

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