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How Earth's Orbit & Tilt Impacts Climate Change

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  • 0:03 Earth's Orbit & Climate Change
  • 0:45 Measurement of Earth's Orbit
  • 2:43 Impact on Climate Change
  • 3:10 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: David Wood

David has taught Honors Physics, AP Physics, IB Physics and general science courses. He has a Masters in Education, and a Bachelors in Physics.

After completing this lesson, you will be able to explain how the earth's orbital shape and tilt affects climate change. We'll explore both historical climate change and current global warming. A short quiz will follow.

Earth's Orbit & Climate Change

Climate change is any change in global and regional weather patterns over the long term. The most well-known of these is global warming, which is attributed to the release of greenhouse gases by humans into the atmosphere. But the amount of energy we receive from the sun varies in some natural ways, and this impacts climate change as well.

The earth orbits the sun once per year but it doesn't do so in a neat and perfect way, like some people imagine. The earth's orbit is elliptical, not circular, and its axis is not tilted straight. These factors all change over time. They can make the earth cooler or warmer because they affect how much radiation we receive from the sun.

Measurement of Earth's Orbit

The three main things that impact the earth's natural climate cycles are eccentricity, obliquity, and procession.

Contributions to the Natural Cycles of the Earth
Contributions to the Natural Cycles of the Earth

Eccentricity is a measure of how elliptical (non-circular) the earth's orbit is. But exactly how elliptical it is changes over long periods of time. This is an approximately 100,000-year cycle. For reasons we don't fully understand, this seems to be the most significant of Earth's natural cycles in terms of its impact on the climate. This is probably partly to do with feedback effects that amplify it: when the temperature increases, the ocean releases carbon dioxide (a greenhouse gas), which causes the temperature to increase even more. This release happens because warmer water can't hold as much carbon dioxide. There are many feedback effects like this on the earth -- it's a complex place!

Obliquity is the tilt of the earth's axis relative to the plane of the earth's orbit around the sun. This varies between a tilt of 22.1 and 24.5 degrees over a period of about 41,000 years. This trend not only affects the average temperature of the earth, but also how prominent the seasons are.

Procession is a wobble in the earth's axis. Not only is the tilt of the axis changing, but the direction in which this tilt points also changes over time, in a cycle of around 26,000 years. Think of the earth as being like a spinning top that has started to wobble.

These combined factors create the earth's natural climate cycles, which are collectively known as Milankovitch cycles. We can see how these work by looking deep under the ice in Antarctica. By cutting into the ice and pulling out a so-called ice core, we can find layers that fell as snow hundreds of thousands of years ago. When we look at these ice cores, we can see how these cycles have affected the temperature over the last 750,000 years or more.

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