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Content Benchmark E.12.A.3
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Earth Science
Atmospheric Process and Water Cycle
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Physical Science

Students understand the role of the atmosphere in Earth’s greenhouse effect. E/S

The greenhouse effect is an increase in the atmospheric temperature caused by water vapor, carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that absorb and retain heat radiation which would otherwise escape from Earth. Jean-Baptiste Fourier, a French scientist, speculated as to the possibility of the greenhouse effect in 1827. Seven decades later, in 1896, a Swedish chemist named Svante Arrhenius observed, as a result of the Industrial Revolution, that more carbon dioxide was being released into the atmosphere. He believed that carbon dioxide levels would rise as industry grew. Arrhenius predicted that this increase would eventually cause a rise in the temperature of Earth.

Contrary to what many believe, the greenhouse effect is not a bad thing. Without the greenhouse effect, Earth’s average global temperature would range from around 21°C to 33°C cooler than it is today, which would be far too cold for the flora and fauna living on the planet. What is of concern is the “enhanced greenhouse effect,” a phenomenon in which increasing atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases might lead to excessive global warming. For more on the enhanced greenhouse effect, go to

For an overview of concepts associated with the greenhouse effect, go to

The temperature of Earth and its atmosphere is influenced by the atmosphere in a number of ways. Radiant energy from the sun encounters the atmosphere. Part of the radiant energy is reflected away, part is absorbed by the atmosphere, and part passes all the way through the atmosphere and reaches Earth’s surface (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Interactions of Solar Radiant Energy with Earth’s Atmosphere (from National Center for Atmospheric Research,

See Benchmark E.12.A.1 for a more complete explanation of the Sun as the source of Earth’s Energy.

Clouds (and their constituent water vapor) might either reflect or absorb solar radiation. Generally speaking, clouds situated high in the atmosphere absorb some radiation and warm the atmosphere. Clouds lower in the atmosphere, near Earth’s surface, are more reflective and have a cooling effect. Overall, clouds seem to have a slight cooling effect on atmospheric temperature.

Another family of gases which cause cooling in the atmosphere is comprised of anthropogenic (man-made) sulfur compounds. Sulfur dioxide and various sulfate gases released as ground-level pollution from automotive and industrial emissions block solar radiation. The result is a cooling effect. These sulfate aerosols have a residence time of only about a week, so they do not accumulate in the atmosphere over time the way other gases can. Thus, their effect is contingent upon their continued release in pollution.

Most people are concerned about the concentration of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere. In too great a concentrations, the gasses might absorb much of the infrared radiation that is radiated from Earth’s surface, and lead to a dangerous increase in global temperatures. The following websites do a nice job of discussing greenhouse gases and how they affect atmospheric temperature.

PhysicalGeography.Net: Introduction to the Atmosphere

Australian Greenhouse Office

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

The greenhouse gases which are of greatest importance are: water vapor, carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, chlorofluorocarbons and halocarbons. Water vapor is the most abundant greenhouse gas, and is very efficient in absorbing infrared radiation, but its atmospheric concentration is highly variable. The rapid turnover of water vapor in the lower atmosphere, via the water cycle, prevents it from accumulating over time. Water vapor has a limited effect over land, but the high concentration of water vapor over warm oceans, such as the Pacific Ocean, can lead to what has been termed a “supergreenhouse effect” and a very significant increase in the temperature of the ocean surface as well as the air above it. This effect can contribute to greater storm intensity.

Carbon dioxide is the gas most often thought of during discussions on the greenhouse effect. Levels of carbon dioxide, in modern times, began increasing with the Industrial Revolution. Figure 2 “ Trends in Atmospheric Concentrations…” depicts the trend in atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration over the past 250 years. Carbon dioxide concentrations have been obtained both from measurements taken from ice cores as well as directly from the atmosphere. Clearly, carbon dioxide levels have significantly increased

Figure 2. Trends in Atmospheric Concentrations and Anthropogenic Emissions of Carbon Dioxide

There is debate over what this increase means. Some scientists are convinced further increases will inevitably lead to a disastrous increase in global temperature, with ice caps melting and sea levels rising. Other scientists point out that modern levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide are far lower than levels during our geologic past (Figure 3). The highest concentrations of CO2 during the previous 600 million years of history occurred during the Cambrian Period (nearly 7000 ppm -- almost 19 times higher than the 360 ppm of today). Scientists who argue there are many more factors to consider than just carbon dioxide point out there was an ice age during Late Ordovician while CO2 concentrations (at 4400 ppm) were around 12 times higher than today. If high levels of carbon dioxide must lead to global warming, Earth should have been exceedingly hot. Instead, global temperatures were cooler than today.

Figure 3. Global Temperature and Atmospheric CO2 over Geologic Time (from Climate and the Carboniferous Period,

Methane (CH4) is added to the atmosphere via microbial fermentation in wetlands, emissions from coal mines, gas pipelines and oil wells, additionally Methane is produced in the stomachs of ruminant animals, such as cattle, and is produced in large quantities by termite colonies. While methane exists at far lower concentrations (1.65 ppm) than does CO2, it is far more effective at absorbing infrared radiation than is carbon dioxide, and its concentration must be taken seriously (Figure 4).

Figure 4. Concentrations of Greenhouse Gases (from Hyperphysics,

Nitrous oxide (N2O) is added to the atmosphere through the burning of biomass, the use of chemical fertilizers, and to a small extent from the combustion of fossil fuels. Nitrous oxide has a lengthy residence time, almost 120 years. Because of this, it tends to accumulate over time, causing problems in both the troposphere, where it contributes to warming, and in the stratosphere, where it contributes to the destruction of ozone.

Chlorofluorocarbons and halocarbons are found at levels from 10 ppt to 20 ppt, but, as shown in Figure 4, are around 10,000 times more effective at absorbing infrared radiation than carbon dioxide. These are introduced to the atmosphere strictly by human activity. They are used as refrigerants, solvents and fire retardants. We have begun to use a less damaging form of chlorofluorocarbon in domestic and automotive air conditioners in an attempt to ameliorate the damaging effects to our atmosphere.

For greater detail on the various greenhouse gases, visit “Greenhouse Gases and Society” at,

The greenhouse gases act in concert to warm Earth. As the incoming solar radiation reaches Earth, the shorter wavelength radiation (such as visible light and ultraviolet light) is able
to pass through the atmosphere more easily than can the longer wavelength radiation, such as infrared radiation, microwaves and radiowaves (Figure 5). Greenhouse gases in the upper atmosphere absorb some of the infrared radiation, but much of the infrared coming from the sun is reflected back out to space.

Figure 5. A Comparison of Wavelengths of Energy from Solar Radiation (from National Center for Atmospheric Research,

Some of the shorter wavelength radiation which reaches Earth’s surface is absorbed, a process which converts it into infrared radiation. This warms the surface, which in turn radiates the infrared energy outward and into the atmosphere. Greenhouse gases in the atmosphere also absorb this radiation, further increasing the temperature of the atmosphere, and re-radiating the infrared back to the Earth. Some scientists liken this to having “trapped” the infrared radiation by an atmosphere which acts as a thermal blanket.

The greenhouse gases in Earth’s atmosphere currently block and absorb only a portion of infrared (heat) radiation (Figure 6). The question is what concentration of greenhouse gases will cause excessive absorption of infrared radiation. It is a question, currently, without a definitive answer, as there is not consensus across the scientific community.

Figure 6. The Greenhouse Effect (from Saskatchewan Interactive,

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Content Benchmark E.12.A.3

Students understand the role of the atmosphere in Earth’s greenhouse effect. E/S

Common misconceptions associated with this benchmark:

1. Students incorrectly believe the greenhouse effect is a bad thing.

Students confuse “greenhouse effect” with “global warming”. Often, when students are first taught about the greenhouse effect, they are also told of the dangerous consequences of global warming. The example of Venus is presented to emphasize the extreme of what could result when concentrations of greenhouse gases get so high that they trap virtually all the infrared radiation which was emitted after surface absorption of shorter wavelength radiation. As a result, students believe we need to stop the greenhouse effect when what we really need to do is address global warming. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has an FAQ website on global warming which addresses this issue under the topic of “What is the greenhouse effect, and is it affecting our climate?”

Global Warming – Frequently Asked Questions

2. Students mistakenly believe carbon dioxide is the only greenhouse gas and/or that it is the most important greenhouse gas.

When students are first taught about the greenhouse effect, carbon dioxide is very often the only greenhouse gas mentioned. Students need to learn that carbon dioxide is one of several greenhouse gases, is not the most abundant of those gases, and is not even the most efficient at absorbing infrared radiation. The accompanying websites address the various greenhouse gases and their importance.

Greenhouse? What’s that?

Water Vapor Rules the Greenhouse System

3. Students incorrectly believe all infrared radiation is trapped by the atmosphere.

When students are taught that the Earth’s atmosphere acts like a blanket which traps heat near Earth’s surface, they do not understand the use of metaphor and believe that this “blanket” is able to hold all the infrared heat caused by absorption of shorter wavelengths of light on Earth’s surface. They do not see that only a fraction of the infrared radiation is “trapped” while the rest escapes to space. The following website links to an image which compares the energy of the solar radiation which enters the Earth system to the energy which leaves this system.

United Nations Environmental Program Maps and Graphics

4. Students incorrectly believe any increase in the greenhouse effect must lead to a dramatic increase in Earth’s global temperature.

Students are of the impression that increases in the greenhouse effect lead to large increases in surface and atmospheric temperatures over the short term. Earth’s temperature has risen 0.6°C in the past 140 years as a result of greenhouse gases increasing global warming. Computer models suggest that doubling the present concentration of greenhouse gases would warm Earth’s average temperature between 1.5°C to 4.5°C. This is not a huge increase in temperature, but it would significantly alter Earth’s climate. By means of comparison, Earth’s last ice age, 18,000 years ago, occurred when Earth’s average temperature was just 5°C cooler than it is today. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration global warming FAQ website addresses this issue under the topics of “Are greenhouse gases increasing?” and “Is the climate warming?”

Global Warming – Frequently Asked Questions

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Content Benchmark E.12.A.3

Students understand the role of the atmosphere in Earth’s greenhouse effect. E/S

Sample Test Questions

1st Item Specification:  Explain how the proportions of gases in the atmosphere affect weather and climate.

Depth of Knowledge Level 1

  1. Which of the following pairs of gases are the most abundant in Earth’s atmosphere?
    1. Nitrogen (N2) and Oxygen (O2).
    2. Methane (CH4) and Nitrogen (N2).
    3. Water Vapor (H20) and Oxygen (O2).
    4. Carbon Dioxide (CO2) and Carbon Monoxide (CO).
  1. If the percentage of sulfate aerosols in Earth’s atmosphere were to increase, Earth’s temperature would likely
    1. remain the same.
    2. become slightly warmer.
    3. drastically increase.
    4. begin to decrease.

Depth of Knowledge Level 2

  1. Use the diagram to answer the following question.

(From Hyperphysics,

    Atmospheric concentrations have been given for three greenhouse gases.  If the concentration of each were raised by 1.0 ppm, which gas would cause the greatest global temperature increase?
    1. Carbon Dioxide (CO2)
    2. Methane (CH4)
    3. Chlorofluorocarbons (CFC)
    4. Each gas would have an equal effect.
  1. Some environmentalists have suggested that we plant as many trees and other perennial green plants as possible to help reduce the quantity of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.  Which of the following could be an unintended consequence of such a practice?
    1. Earth might get even warmer due to the increased humidity from plants.
    2. Animals would suffer from oxygen depletion due to all the O2 plants consume.
    3. Earth’s temperature will stop increasing since less CO2 is in the atmosphere.
    4. The Earth might start to cool down a little since less heat is retained.

2nd Item Specification:  Identify sources of greenhouse gases.

Depth of Knowledge Level 1

  1. Which of the following gases, released by ruminant animals and termites as a waste product of digestion, can add to global warming?
    1. Carbon Dioxide (CO2).
    2. Methane (CH4)
    3. Chlorofluorocarbon (CFC).
    4. Nitrogen (N2).
  1. In the past, refrigerators, aerosol spray propellants and cleaning solvents were all sources of a greenhouse gas known as
    1. carbon dioxide (CO2).
    2. methane (CH4).
    3. chlorofluorocarbon (CFC).
    4. nitrous oxide (NO2).
  1. Carbon dioxide (CO2) is added to the atmosphere by each of the following EXCEPT
    1. burning fossil fuels.
    2. decay of organic matter.
    3. hydrogen fuel cells
    4. eruption of volcanoes.

Depth of Knowledge Level 2

  1. Use the table to answer the following question.
Greenhouse Gas Concentration
Percent Change Natural and Anthropogenic Sources
Carbon Dioxide 280 ppm 360 ppm 29% organic decay; forest fires; volcanoes; burning fossil fuels; deforestation; land-use change
Methane 0.70 ppm 1.70 ppm 143% wetlands; organic decay; termites; natural gas and oil extraction; biomass burning; rice cultivation; cattle; refuse landfills
Nitrous Oxide 280 ppb 310 ppb 11% forests; grasslands; oceans; soils; soil cultivation; fertilizers; biomass burning; burning of fossil fuels
Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) 0 900 ppt Not Applicable refrigerators; aerosol spray propellants; cleaning solvents
Ozone Unknown Varies with latitude and altitude in the atmosphere Global levels have generally decreased in the stratosphere and increased near the Earth's surface Created naturally by the action of sunlight on molecular oxygen and artificially through photochemical smog production.


    Which of the following is NOT a methane source mainly attributable to human population and activity?
    1. Wetlands areas
    2. Refuse landfills
    3. Cattle farming
    4. Rice cultivation
  1. Wood and fossil fuels each release carbon dioxide (CO2) when they are burned, yet environmental scientists are more concerned about the carbon dioxide added to the atmosphere during the combustion of fossil fuels.  Why?
    1. Wood is burned in the open, so the CO2 is less concentrated.
    2. CO2 released from fossil fuels cannot be utilized during photosynthesis.
    3. Burning wood releases a gas which reduces the residence time of CO2 in the lower and middle atmosphere.
    4. Fossil fuels release CO2 which had been locked out of the atmosphere for millions of years.

3rd Item Specification:  Explain why a certain level of greenhouse effect is essential for life on Earth.

Depth of Knowledge Level 1

  1. If scientists found a way to completely eliminate the greenhouse effect, what would be the likely effect?
    1. Earth would become extremely hot.
    2. Earth would become extremely cold.
    3. Earth would have moderate, Spring-like temperatures.
    4. Earth would have moderate, Autumn-like temperatures.
  1. Greenhouse gases help keep Earth at a habitable temperature by
    1. blocking the cold winds and ices originating in outer space.
    2. serving as essential nutrients for atmospheric phytoplankton.
    3. allowing only infrared light to reach Earth’ surface.
    4. retaining some of the Sun’s energy in our lower atmosphere.

Depth of Knowledge Level 2

  1. Use the diagram to answer the following question.


    Which of the following best explains the temperatures observed at Earth’s surface?
    1. Without a greenhouse effect, energy absorbed at Earth’s surface is lost to space.
    2. With a greenhouse effect, the upper atmosphere reflects away all the Sun’s energy.
    3. Without a greenhouse effect, all the Sun’s energy is absorbed deep into Earth’s crust.
    4. With a greenhouse effect, heat flows from the cold atmosphere to the warm surface.
  1. Without a greenhouse effect, it would have been more difficult for life to have become established on Earth.  Which of the following is a reasonable explanation why?
    1. Warmer global temperatures would have made Earth too warm for life.
    2. Life originated in liquid water but Earth’s water would have been frozen.
    3. With no carbon dioxide, plants would have used oxygen needed by animals.
    4. The extra ultraviolet radiation reaching Earth would have melted the crust.

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Content Benchmark E.12.A.3

Students understand the role of the atmosphere in Earth’s greenhouse effect. E/S

Answers to Sample Test Questions

             1.  A, DOK level 1
             2.  D, DOK level 1
             3.  C, DOK level 2
             4.  A, DOK level 2
             5.  B, DOK level 1
             6.  C, DOK level 1
             7.  C, DOK level 1
             8.  A, DOK level 2
             9.  D, DOK level 2
           10.  B, DOK level 1
           11.  D, DOK level 1
           12.  A, DOK level 2
           13.  B, DOK level 2

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Content Benchmark E.12.A.3

Students understand the role of the atmosphere in Earth’s greenhouse effect. E/S

Intervention Strategies and Resources

The following is a list of intervention strategies and resources that will facilitate student understanding of this benchmark.

1. United States Environmental Protection Agency
The United States EPA has a website which discusses the greenhouse effect, then lets students interact with an animated tutorial to help them understand the concepts involved.

Greenhouse Effect


2. National Center for Atmospheric Research
The National Center for Atmospheric Research provides a couple of lessons to help students understand about the greenhouse effect and what factors affect it.

What is a Greenhouse?

What Factors Impact a Greenhouse?


3. Michigan Reach Out!
Michigan Reach Out! has a very comprehensive page providing lessons and activities to guide students as they study about the greenhouse effect and global warming.

The Greenhouse Effect


4. The Global Warming Unit from the Michigan State University College of Education
Many activities and lessons are present, with Lessons 2 & 3 being most appropriate for our topic.

Global Warming Unit Homepage

Lesson 2: The Greenhouse Effect Debate

Lesson 3: The Greenhouse Effect Visualizer


5. National Geographic XPEDITIONS
National Geographic XPEDITIONS has produced a very in-depth lesson in which students explore the relationship between atmospheric carbon dioxide and climate. This is a lengthy lesson which would take several days.

Climate and CO2: Analyzing their Relationship


6. Global Atmospheric Change
The College of Education at Penn State University has created a thorough website entitled Global Atmospheric Change. Many of their lessons are appropriate to our topic. Once at the homepage of the site, scroll down and view the selections under Investigations Lessons.

Global Atmospheric Change

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