Absorption by atmospheric gases of incoming and outgoing radiation

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 Sara Harris, Department of Earth & Ocean Sciences, University of British Columbia

Topic: Absorption spectra, greenhouse gases, and the greenhouse effect
Course type: Introductory or upper level university, any size class
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 absorption by Earth's atmosphere of both incoming and outgoing radiation
  • Contrast atmospheric constituents based on their absorption spectra
  • Identify greenhouse and non-greenhouse gases based on their absorption spectra
  • Estimate Earth's surface temperature from satellite data


In small groups, students first examine a portion of the electromagnetic spectrum and the absorption spectra of seven atmospheric gases in that wavelength range.

Click to enlarge image
The groups are:
  • 0.1-3 microns,
  • 3-12 microns,
  • 12-40 microns.
After completing an initial exercise, students are rearranged into new groups, which contain at least one expert on each of the three portions of the spectrum. In these new groups, they put the full spectrum together, identify and rank greenhouse gases, and estimate Earth's temperature from satellite data.

The instructor organizes groups, circulates, provides discussion guidance, coordinates simultaneous reporting of results at the end, leads final discussion, and administers assessment. This activity (Microsoft Word 1.1MB Sep29 11) uses a jigsaw pedagogical structure.

Teaching Materials

Absorption Spectra Jigsaw Activity (Microsoft Word 1.1MB Sep29 11) - Student handout

Absorption Spectra Jigsaw Activity-for Instructor (Microsoft Word 1.1MB Sep29 11) - Instructor notes and answers

Data files provided for replotting or modification if desired by instructor:

Data: 0.1-3 microns (Excel 9.8MB Jul15 11) - For Activity 1, Group 1

Data: 3-12 microns (Excel 3.6MB Jul15 11) - For Activity 1, Group 2

Data: 12-40 microns (Excel 9.7MB Jul15 11) - For Activity 1, Group 3

Blackbody & Satellite Data: 3-40 microns (Excel 2.1MB Jul15 11) - For Activity 2


Assessment Ideas for Absorption Jigsaw (Microsoft Word 627kB Sep29 11)

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.


Data for this activity were obtained from SpectralCalc.com
SERC's Jigsaw module which includes example jigsaw activities