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Effects of the Earth's Rotation & Revolution

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  • 0:00 Incoming Energy
  • 0:51 Rotation
  • 2:23 Axis Tilt
  • 3:48 Revolution
  • 5:11 Climate
  • 5:59 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Meredith Mikell
This lesson explores the factors that influence seasons, daylight, and temperatures on our planet, including rotation and radiation. At the end, you can test your knowledge with a brief quiz.

Incoming Energy

The sun constantly floods the Earth with radiation: light, heat, radio waves, ultraviolet waves, and all wavelengths in between. This radiation travels 92,960,000 miles, and the amount is fairly consistent, even though the sun goes through cycles of its own. But once it reaches Earth, what happens to that radiation is not actually very consistent across the planet. Case and point: some parts of Earth are cold, some are hot, and our seasons mean that different parts of the Earth are heated more or less at different times.

Even though temperature fluctuates slightly during Earth's orbit, these differences have nothing to do with our distance from the Sun. Our planet's seasons and climates can be attributed to the fact that Earth rotates in motion about its central axis and moves in orbital revolution when it travels around the Sun.

Rotation

For much of human history, people believed Earth to be flat. We now know better. But if Earth were flat, the way we experience day and night, as well as seasons, would be vastly different than it is. For one thing, a flat Earth would experience the same temperatures across its surface; the equatorial regions would have the same temperatures as the poles. But because our planet is spherical, the amount of radiation absorbed at the equator is greater than at the poles.

There are a couple of reasons for this. First, the high angle of incoming radiation at the equator, which tapers off to be at its lowest at the poles, where the radiation hits at a lower angle. But remember that our planet is also not sitting still. It rotates about a central axis, much like a spinning toy top. One full spin happens in 24 hours and is the reason why we experience day and night. No matter where on the planet you are, you will experience some daytime and nighttime. This rotation also causes Earth's atmosphere to flatten, ever so slightly, much the same way a pizza chef can make a ball of dough flatten into a disk by spinning it in the air.

The thicker atmosphere around the equator also contributes to the higher absorption there. Combined with the high angle of radiation, this translates to year-round warm temperatures between the Tropic of Cancer to the Tropic of Capricorn, imaginary lines of latitude at 23 degrees north and south of the equator, respectively.

Axis Tilt

To add further complexity, not only does Earth spin, it spins at a slight angle. Earth has an axis tilt of about 23.4 degrees. That tilt causes differences in the amount of daylight experienced on different parts of the planet. For example, if it is summertime and you are north of the Arctic Circle, an imaginary line of latitude at 66 degrees north, you will not experience any nighttime as Earth rotates. This is because the axis is tilted towards the sun during the summer months and is why places like Alaska, Canada, and Northern Europe can be called 'land of the midnight sun.' At the same time, someone south of the Antarctic Circle, an imaginary line of latitude at 66 degrees south, would be experiencing no daylight whatsoever, enduring many weeks of darkness.

Contrary to what you may think, being tilted towards the sun and receiving nonstop daylight does not equate to dramatically warmer temperatures. It is still colder in the Arctic than it is at the equator. Remember that the angle in which solar radiation hits Earth is much lower at the poles and is very high at the equator and that the atmosphere is somewhat thicker at the equator. Light waves and infrared waves, or heat waves, are absorbed differently.

Revolution

Thankfully, for its inhabitants, the Arctic Circle is not pointed at the sun year-round, and the Antarctic is not always in darkness. They actually experience the same amount of daylight and nighttime over the course of a year. But Earth's axis tilt doesn't change either. What does change is Earth's orientation relative to the Sun. While Earth spins on its axis, it is also traveling around the Sun in orbital revolution. One full orbit around the sun is about 365 Earth days, or one year. The axis tilt remains at 23.4 degrees, but depending on where Earth is in its orbit, the amount of radiation received on different parts of the planet will change.

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