Examining a Simplified Model of Cloud Effects on Earth’s Energy Budget
This lesson is designed to help students analyze the interaction between different cloud types and Earth's incoming and outgoing energy.
Clouds affect Earth's climate in two major ways. First, they are an essential part of the water cycle. Clouds provide an important link between rain and snow, oceans and lakes, and plants and animals. Secondly, clouds also have an important (yet complicated) effect on Earth’s temperature because of their complex role in the Earth's radiation budget. Clouds can both cool down and warm up the temperatures on Earth.
Analyze the image below. The yellow arrows represent incoming shortwave radiation from the sun. The red arrows represent longwave radiation emitted by Earth. The effects of high clouds are on the left side of the figure, and the effects of low clouds are on the right side of the figure.
- Check with your instructor on how to submit your answers.
- Examine the yellow arrows showing incoming shortwave radiation. What is the difference between the amount of incoming shortwave radiation transmitted through high-level clouds and low-level clouds?
- Examine the red arrows showing outgoing longwave radiation. What is the difference between the amount of outgoing longwave radiation transmitted through high-level clouds and low-level clouds?
- Compare the yellow arrow reflected by the high cloud to the red arrow leaving the base of the high cloud and pointing toward the surface. Overall, what effect do high-level clouds have on the flow of energy through the atmosphere and to Earth's surface?
- Compare the yellow arrow reflected by the low cloud to the red arrow leaving the base of the low cloud and pointing toward the surface. Overall, what effect do low-level clouds have on the flow of energy through the atmosphere and to Earth's surface?
- As global temperatures rise, how do you think this will affect clouds?
Teachers, these mini lessons/student activities are perfect "warm up" tasks that can be used as a hook, bell ringer, exit slip, etc. They take less than a class period to complete. Learn more on the "My NASA Data What are Mini Lessons?" page.
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Supported NGSS Performance Expectations
- MS-ESS2-1: Develop a model to describe the cycling of Earth's materials and the flow of energy that drives this process.
- MS-PS4-2: Develop and use a model to describe that waves are reflected, absorbed, or transmitted through various materials.
- HS-ESS2-4: Use a model to describe how variations in the flow of energy into and out of Earth’s systems result in changes in climate.