The shape of Earth's orbit becomes more or less oval (eccentricity), Earth wobbles as it spins (precession), and Earth's axis changes too (tilt). All these changes, over thousands of years, causes Earth's climate to change.
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Windows to the Universe
How the Sun Affects Climate: Solar and Milankovitch Cycles
gets all its energy from the Sun
and it is the Sun's energy that keeps
Earth warm. But the amount of energy Earth receives is not always the same. Changes
in the Sun and changes in Earth's
affect the amount of energy that
reaches the Earth.
The 11-Year Solar Cycle
When the Sun has fewer sunspots, it gives off less energy, less energy makes
its way to Earth, and our planet cools down. More than three hundred years ago,
when the climate was cooler for a time called the "Little Ice Age",
people noticed there were no sunspots for several decades. Over time, scientists
have noticed a pattern in the number of sunspots. About every 11 years the number
of sunspots reaches a high and then decreases again.
Over thousands of years, changes in Earth's orbit cause changes in the
amount of the Sun's energy that gets to the planet. Over the past several
million years these changes have caused cycles of global warming and cooling.
There are three ways that Earth's orbit changes over time.
- Eccentricity: The shape of Earth's orbit around the
Sun becomes slightly more and then less oval every 100,000 years.
- Precession: Earth wobbles on it axis as it spins, completing
a full wobble every 23,000 years.
- Tilt: The angle of the Earth's axis relative to the plane of its orbit changes about three degrees every 41,000 years.
Once the Sun's energy reaches the Earth, several things can happen. The
energy can be absorbed by the planet, reflected back into space, or become trapped
in the atmosphere.
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The Winter 2009 issue of The Earth Scientist
, focuses on Earth System science, including articles on student inquiry, differentiated instruction, geomorphic concepts, the rock cycle, and much more!
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