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Importance of the Tropic of Cancer & the Tropic of Capricorn

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  • 0:02 Circles on Earth's Sphere
  • 0:34 The Tropics of Cancer…
  • 1:14 The Summer & Winter Solstices
  • 1:59 The Sun's Location
  • 3:24 The Arctic & Antarctic Circle
  • 4:48 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Artem Cheprasov

Artem has a doctor of veterinary medicine degree.

In this lesson, you'll learn about the significance of the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn, and how they help explain the hot weather in the tropical zone and the cold weather above and below the Arctic and Antarctic Circles, respectively.

Circles on Earth's Sphere

Everybody knows where the equator, Arctic Circle, and Antarctic Circle are. The equator swings around Earth's belly. The Arctic Circle swings around the top of Earth, near Santa, and the Antarctic Circle, of course, is closer to the penguins of the South Pole.

But what in the world are the Tropic of Capricorn and the Tropic of Cancer? This lesson will tell you what they are, where they are, and what their significance is to the tropical zone and the Arctic and Antarctic Circles.

The Tropics of Cancer & Capricorn

Let's get right to it then. The Tropic of Cancer is a circle of latitude located approximately 23.5 degrees north of the equator, and the Tropic of Capricorn is a circle of latitude located approximately 23.5 degrees south of the equator. The area of Earth located in between the Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn is known as the tropics, or tropical (torrid) zone. You know, it's the area of Earth that's really hot and lots rainforests lie.

The reason Cancer and Capricorn are part of their respective names has more to do with history than anything happening right now.

The Summer & Winter Solstices

In ancient times, when these lines were named, the Sun was in front of the constellation Cancer in our sky during the summer solstice and in front of the constellation Capricorn in our sky during the summer solstice.

The summer (Northern) solstice marks the beginning of summer in the Northern Hemisphere and winter in the Southern Hemisphere. It occurs around June 21st of every year. The winter (Southern) solstice is the time winter begins in the Northern Hemisphere and summer begins in the Southern Hemisphere, around December 21st of each year.

Due to precession, or the wobbling of Earth's axis with time, the Sun is no longer in these constellations during these times, but the names have stuck nonetheless.

The Sun's Location

Okay, okay. So, what's the big deal with the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn anyways? What do they tell us? Well, the Sun never appears directly overhead (at the zenith) anywhere outside the tropics.

The points on the Tropic of Cancer are the northernmost points where the Sun can pass directly overhead. This means that if you're located north of the Tropic of Cancer, the Sun will always appear south of the zenith. It is at noon of June 21st of each year when the Sun is directly overhead on the Tropic of Cancer, marking the beginning of summer in the Northern Hemisphere.

On the other hand, the points on the Tropic of Capricorn are the southernmost points where the Sun can pass directly overhead. If you're somewhere south of the Tropic of Capricorn, the Sun appears to be always north of the zenith, and as you may have already guessed, on December 21st of each year, the Sun is directly overhead at noon on the Tropic of Capricorn, signaling the beginning of summer in the Southern Hemisphere.

The tropical zone is thus the only area of Earth where the Sun can appear directly overhead, and it does so twice within this zone as it passes between its boundaries. Because the tropical zone receives so much more direct, or concentrated, sunlight, compared to the rest of the Earth, it helps to explain why it is so darn hot over there!

The Arctic & Antarctic Circle

Contrast this with the area north of the Arctic Circle during the winter solstice and the area south of the Antarctic Circle during the summer solstice. These circles of latitude are both located at about 66.5 degrees north or south latitude, respectively.

During the winter solstice, the Sun does not rise north of the Arctic Circle and does not set south of the Antarctic Circle. During the summer solstice, the Sun does not rise south of the Antarctic Circle and does not set north of the Arctic Circle.

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