Ever had a day at the beach that turned into a total bummer? Picture this: You're sunbathing, minding your own business, when suddenly, bam! Sunburn! Now, you're left wondering, "Why is the sun so far away, and yet it can still burn me?"

A person applying lots of sunscreen and saying

And then, seeking refuge from the scorch, you spot a can of pop. But, oh no! It's like touching a hot stove — instant burn. So, you grab your cooler, stash the sizzling can, and finally find comfort under an umbrella.

A woman sitting on a chair on the beach with a gust of air taking away her book and hat

All seems chill until the mild sea breeze cranks up, turning peaceful vibes into a wild wind. People are running, and you're left bewildered — what's the deal?

This beach trip is a reminder of the power of thermal energy transfer. It's a scientific concept that will help you better understand why things heat up.

1. Radiation...that sunburn is awful!!!

Let's begin with that giant ball of fire in the sky — the sun.

When you bask in its warmth, it feels nice, right? But, be careful — soaking up too much heat from the sun can lead to a sunburn.

Now, you were wondering, how did that heat from the sun travel all the way to where you're chilling?

An animation depicting radiation coming from the sun to the earth.

The answer is radiation!

We all know that the sun is hot, and that heat from the sun is transformed into a kind of energy called radiation.

Radiation is:

  • An electromagnetic wave — energy that moves through space in the form of electric and magnetic fields. It can travel through air, water, and even nothingness. Examples include radio waves, microwaves, light, X-rays, etc.

  • It can travel through the vacuum of space at the speed of light, covering millions and millions of kilometers.

    UV radiation

The sun's radiations are akin to invisible waves of warmth, but only in moderation. Excessive exposure to this radiation can lead to an increased risk of skin cancer.

An animation depicting the signs of skin cancer as a spot on a person's hands as they sit on the beach.

Where else do we find radiation around us?

Take a look around, and you'll notice radiation everywhere, whether on a small or large scale. This natural phenomenon occurs in various forms such as x-rays, radio waves, infrared, visible light, ultraviolet, gamma rays, and even microwaves.

Ever wonder why your cold pasta heats up so quickly in the microwave? That's thanks to microwave radiation.

Humans also emit radiation, though it's at a low energy level, making it challenging to observe. However, you can catch a glimpse of the human body in motion using thermal imaging camera, where the heat emitted becomes visible. It's a fascinating way to see how different types of radiation are part of our everyday experiences.

An animation depicting a person glowing red and yellow through a thermal imaging camera while hiding in the woods.


You're enjoying a sunny day in the park, sitting on a metal bench. Surprisingly, the bench feels hot, even though it's not in direct sunlight. Why does the metal bench feel warm?

2. Conduction...ow, that's hot!

Now, onto your next encounter. Recall the moment when you grabbed that can of soda that had been outside the freezer for a while. Yes, it surprised you with a burn, but only upon touching it.

How is this different from the warmth of the sun? The magic at play here is another method of heat transfer called conduction.

A fire under a rod at one end and a thermometer at the other end

Conduction is:

  • A process of heat transfer between two objects in direct contact with each other.

  • The particles within a material gain kinetic energy — energy something has because of it's motion — when exposed to heat, causing them to vibrate.

  • This thermal energy is then transferred to neighboring particles, creating a domino effect that eventually heats the entire material.

A stove with fire and a pan on top of it

Conduction can occur in solids, liquids, and gases; however, it requires a medium for heat transfer.

Metals, in particular, excel at conduction due to the free movement of electrons within their structure.

A man in a kitchen touching a hot pot. He winces and pulls his finger away.

Is this why I feel hot when I touch that hot spoon sitting in my soup?

Yes, that's correct! When you place a metal spoon in a hot soup, the heat from the soup is conducted through the metal spoon. As the spoon becomes hotter, it transfers the heat energy to your hand when you touch it.

A bowl of hot edible with spoon sitting on its lip.

Hey, it's not just spoons that can feel hot — you're bringing the heat too!

A girl with glam

Ever notice how when you hold snow or an ice cube in your hand, it starts to melt?

The snow absorbs the warmth from your hand, causing it to transform from solid to liquid. It's like a mini-melting magic trick happening right in your palm!

Snow falling on a person's hand.


You just poured a hot beverage into a ceramic mug and noticed that the handle of the mug is cool to the touch even though the liquid inside is steaming hot. This is because ceramic is (select all that apply):

3. Convection...wow, where did that strong wind come from?

Now, let's revisit your third beach day — an almost perfect escape until an unexpected powerful gust came roaring in, creating chaos as everything seemed to take flight.

People dashed after their belongings, attempting to secure them amid the strong gale that threatened to disrupt the tranquillity of their day by the sea.

This phenomenon is influenced by convection — another way that heat transfers.

wavy arrows and a fire symbol

Convection is:

  • A process that happens when the warmer and less dense particles in a fluid (liquid or gas) rise, while cooler and denser particles sink.

  • This creates a flow of current, called convection current.

Here are some examples:

Sea Breeze and Land Breeze

The occasional strong breezes and gusts that catch beachgoers by surprise are due to the following:

  • During the day, the land heats up faster than the sea, causing warmer air to rise over the land.

  • This rising air creates a lower pressure area, drawing in cooler air from the sea, resulting in a sea breeze.

  • At night, the land cools down more rapidly than the sea, causing warmer air to rise over the sea.

  • Cooler air from the land then flows toward the sea, creating a land breeze.

  • Convection, driven by temperature differences, influences the circulation patterns that give rise to these coastal breezes.

Sand and water flowing towards the land from ocean.

Heating a Pot of Water on a Stove

  • When the stove is turned on, the bottom of the pot gets hot.

  • The water near the bottom of the pot also gets heated and becomes less dense.

  • As a result, the warmer water rises while the cooler, denser water descends.

  • This creates a convection current in the water, with the heated water ascending and the cooler water descending.

 A transparent pan with eggs and water boiling in it

  • The process continues until the entire pot of water reaches a uniform temperature.

Flow of magma shown by moving red and blue arrows


After simmering soup on the stove for a while, you notice that the kitchen windows become foggy. This is mainly caused by:

Is this why a room gets warm when we light up the fireplace?

You're absolutely correct!

  • When you light a fire in the fireplace, the heat causes the air around the flames to become warmer and less dense.

  • This warm air rises, creating a convection current.

  • As the warm air ascends, cooler air from the room moves in to replace it.

  • The cycle of rising warm air and descending cool air forms a convection current that circulates throughout the room, gradually warming the space.

A stone fireplace

This convection process contributes to the cozy and heated atmosphere generated by a fireplace, keeping you warm and fuzzy!

A guy sitting near a fireplace. He says,

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Now that you're familiar with the three ways heat moves in our surroundings, check out a few ways you can exercise caution to avoid injuries and apply this knowledge in your daily activities for more efficient heat management.


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