Heat and Other Effects of Solar Energy on the Earth

Nicole Conaway, Elizabeth Friedl
  • Author
    Nicole Conaway

    Nicole Conaway has taught Secondary Math and Science [subjects] for over 20 years. They have a Master's Degree in Environmental Science from the University of Michigan and a Bachelor's degree in Biology form Wayne State University. They also have a Professional Teaching Certificate from the State of Michigan.

  • Instructor
    Elizabeth Friedl

    Elizabeth, a Licensed Massage Therapist, has a Master's in Zoology from North Carolina State, one in GIS from Florida State University, and a Bachelor's in Biology from Eastern Michigan University. She has taught college level Physical Science and Biology.

How does the sun heat the Earth? Learn about solar energy and see how the sun affects weather and climate. Study the Earth's tilt and its impact on the seasons. Updated: 12/03/2021

Table of Contents


What is Solar Energy?

The warmth felt on a summer day, light during the day time, and a renewable resource for generating electricity all come from solar energy. Solar energy is the term used to describe the energy that comes from the sun. This energy travels through space in waves. It takes the form of heat, light, and ultraviolet radiation that is invisible to humans but does affect the Earth and the life of the planet. Solar energy makes it possible for life to exist on Earth. It warms the oceans and provides the energy for plants to grow, and plays a role in determining which plants grow in different regions. The sun's energy warms the Earth's atmosphere to a temperature that can sustain life.

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  • 0:08 What is Solar Energy?
  • 0:45 Earth's Shape and Temperature
  • 1:40 Earth's Tilt Causes…
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How Does the Sun Heat the Earth?

Heat from the sun is so powerful it can be felt on Earth 93,000,000 miles away. How does the sun heat the earth across such a great distance? And just how does the sun heat the Earth? The answers to these questions have to do with properties of both the sun and the Earth itself. Energy released from the sun travels through space in waves called radiation. It can take several forms including light, heat, and ultraviolet radiation. Not all of this radiation reaches the surface of the Earth. Some of it is filtered or reflected back into space by the atmosphere - the layers of air that surround the Earth. For the solar energy that does reach Earths surface, some is absorbed and some is returned to the atmosphere. This is known as terrestrial radiation.

How Does the Sun Affect Weather and Climate?

The sun affects both weather and climate on Earth. Climate is the average weather over a region. Weather includes temperature, rainfall, wind, humidity, and other factors. It might seem obvious that solar energy is related to temperature, but it is also closely related to rainfall. Solar energy causes evaporation of surface water. This water vapor rises into the atmosphere where it forms clouds that can shower rain back down onto the earth.

The shape of the Earth affects the amount of warmth and light received by the Earth. Because the earth is round, or spherical, and tilted, solar energy is not evenly distributed over the entire planet. Some parts of the earth receive more or less solar radiation than others. This is because the angle of the sun rays on Earth are more direct in some areas and less direct in others. At the equator around the center of the earth, sun rays hit the earth directly in a straight line. This concentrates the sun's energy. But moving north and south from the equator toward the poles of the earth, the angle at which sunlight reaches the earth increases. As a result an equal amount of solar energy is spread over a wider area. This leads to colder temperatures and climates as latitude increases moving away from the equator, with the most extreme cold at the north and south pole.

Greenhouse Effect

This illustration shows how greenhouse gases warm the earth.

Greenhouse Effect

A greenhouse creates an artificial microclimate for growing plants especially in places where temperatures are generally cooler and the growing season is shorter. Clear glass or plastic allows sunlight to enter the greenhouse then traps its warmth inside. Earth's atmosphere acts in a similar way. Gases that make up the atmosphere allow sunlight to pass through. Some of this sunlight is absorbed by the earth and some reradiate back from the earth in the form of thermal radiation or heat. This heat is absorbed by the atoms of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Greenhouse gases include water vapor, carbon dioxide and methane. They provide the benefit of warming the earth enough for life to flourish. Without the greenhouse effect, Earth would be too cold to support life. However, an excessive amount of greenhouse gas can lead to an enhanced greenhouse effect. This can cause too much heat to be trapped in the atmosphere leading to global warming and climate change. The effects of this are increasing rapidly. Scientists predict global temperature may increase by as much as 4 degrees Celsius over the next century. Burning fossil fuels like coal, oil, and gas increase the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Raising livestock adds to the methane levels as well. Higher amounts of these greenhouse gases lead to the enhanced greenhouse effect. Converting to more renewable resources and practicing more sustainable agriculture can reduce this levels and maintain a more balanced greenhouse effect to keep Earth's atmosphere within the proper temperature range.

How Does the Tilt of the Earth Affect the Seasons?

Earth spins about an imaginary line drawn through its center called the axis, with a slight tilt rather than being completely vertical. It was mentioned earlier that this tilt impacts the amount of sunlight that hits the earth at different locations. How does the tilt of the Earth affect the seasons? The combination of this tilt and the planet's orbital path around the sun causes the change of seasons experienced on Earth.


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Frequently Asked Questions

How does the Earth's tilt cause seasons?

Earth's tilt causes seasons by changing the amount of direct sunlight received in a certain region at different times of the year.

How does the Earth's tilt affect weather?

Earth's tilt affects the weather because the amount of sunlight received affects temperature. In seasons when a hemisphere is tilted towards the sun it will have warmer weather, and when it is tilted away from the sun it will have cooler weather.

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