What is the Earth's Average Temperature?

This activity is part of the community collection of teaching materials on climate and energy topics.

These materials were submitted by faculty as part of the CLEAN Climate Workshop, held in June, 2011 and are not yet part of the CLEAN collection of reviewed resources.
Contributed by Dave Dempsey, Department of Geosciences, San Francisco State University

Planetary energy balance: the temperature of the planet vs. the temperature of the earth's surface
Course type: Introductory, non-majors' college level
This activity teaches Climate Literacy Essential Principle 2: Climate is regulated by complex interactions among components of the Earth system


Students should be able to do the following:
  • Estimate the average temperature of the earth as a whole (atmosphere and surface combined), by applying several basic physical principles to satellite observations of solar energy.
  • Compare this temperature to the global average temperature of the earth's surface.


This short, pedagogically flexible activity (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 516kB Jun15 11) guides students to answer six questions about the radiative energy budget of the earth as a whole. The activity gives students practice applying basic physical principles to observations and raises a question that can motivate investigation of the greenhouse effect.

Greenhouse Effect Cartoon
In particular, students practice applying:
(a) the concept of a balanced (energy) budget;
(b) a basic law of radiation ("the warmer an object is, the more radiation it emits"); and
(c) satellite observations of radiation.
By applying these principles, students can determine the temperature that the earth must have to create the observed, nearly balanced planetary energy budget.

Students then contrast this planetary temperature with the global, long-term average temperature of the earth's surface, which raises the question of why the surface is so much warmer than the planet as a whole. Investigation of the greenhouse effect in subsequent activities can resolve the apparent discrepancy.

The activity can be implemented pedagogically in any of a variety of ways, such as in-class, small-group collaborative problem solving; out-of-class individual homework; pre-class, online assignment, etc. Most of the questions can be implemented at least partly as multiple choice questions if desired, for use with clickers in class, for example.

Teaching Materials

Activity: What is the Earth's Average Temperature? (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 516kB Jun15 11)
Blackbody Radiative Emission vs. Temperature (Excel file) (Excel 2007 (.xlsx) 57kB Jun15 11)


The answers to the six questions posed in the activity are straightforward. Students can turn in their responses in written form (paper-based or online, in class or as homework). Alternatively, most of the questions can be posed as multiple choice questions for use with online quizzes or clickers in class. As a very basic follow-up, students should be able to describe the fundamental property of an object that changes when an object absorbs more radiant energy than it emits. [i.e. the temperature...and it must increase].

Connections to other Activities

This activity is one of a suite of five activities designed to address the concepts that address how the greenhouse effect influences global temperature (Principle 2, Concept C) which can be used individually or combined as desired.

This activity can be used as a warm-up for a variety of investigations of the greenhouse effect and global warming. One example is The Greenhouse Effect: Why is the Earth's Surface So Much Warmer than the Earth as Seen from Space?, a complementary activity in which students apply the same physical concepts used here to analyze energy budgets for the atmosphere and for the earth's surface. The intent is to help students understand better how the greenhouse effect works and how enhancing the greenhouse effect leads to global warming.


Earth's Global Energy Budget ( 1.1MB Jun15 11), Kevin Trenberth, John Fasullo, and Jeffrey Kiehl, March 2009, Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society (PDF file)