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In this lab students learn how to create hierarchies of models of increasing complexity to understand some physical process - in this case, the absorption of solar energy by the Earth and its radiation of that energy back to space. Whenever one sets out to understand a complex phenomenon, it is best to start with the simplest possible model that explains most of the behavior of that phenomenon and to build upward in complexity gradually. In this exercise students learn how to do this by modeling the energy balance at Earth's surface. The exercise begins by assuming that the Earth is a perfect black body lacking an atmosphere, then moves on to incorporate the fact that Earth reflects much of the solar radiation incident upon it, and later incorporates the fact that Earth has an atmosphere. Each time something is added to the model students evaluate the output and compare it to actual Earth surface conditions to see how well each refinement captures the reality of the physics of heat absorption, exchange, and emission.
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