Milankovitch and Climate

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The Yugoslavian meteorologist Milutin Milankovitch is known for coming up with the idea of orbital forcing, also known as Milankovitch cycles. Orbital forcing is a fancy term for certain changes in Earth’s orbit, which are precession, obliquity, and eccentricity.

I’ve written about all three of these before, but here’s a brief overview:

Precession is the motion of Earth’s axis like a spinning top. Imagine the Earth’s day-by-day rotating motion as that of a top. What do tops also do? They wobble.

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Although I’ve written about obliquity, I haven’t used the term before. It’s a fancy word for how the tilt of the Earth’s axis doesn’t stay at the same angle. It changes a bit over a very long period of time, ranging between 22° and 24°.

Eccentricity refers to the changing shape of Earth’s orbit. You might know that it’s not a perfect circle—it’s an ellipse, which I’ll talk about in more depth later. What you might not know is that how elliptical it is—that is, how far it is from being a perfect circle—also changes a bit over time.

These motions are all very well established in science today. We know that they each have an effect on Earth’s climate, and together they cause the ice ages. But Milutin Milankovitch, the scientist who first came up with the idea, had a lot going against him. Continue reading

Orbit and Climate

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You have probably all heard of ice ages.

v1.bjsxMTYxNDc0O2o7MTc0NzM7MTIwMDsyNTAwOzE1MDA.jpgAnd no, I don’t mean the Ice Age movies…

Although, Ice Age is actually a pretty good example of what happens during a real-life ice age. I haven’t seen enough of the movies to really talk about how accurate they are, but I know there’s a lot of ice.

And a lot of breaking of ice.

These movies take place during a time when much of the northern and southern regions of the Earth were covered in glaciers. The world looked a lot like the satellite image up above. Whether mammoths and smilodons (sabre-toothed cats) actually lived then is another question entirely.

For the record, dinosaurs were definitely not still alive back then. Even deep under the ice. The quote from the third movie basically sums it up:

“I thought those guys were extinct!”

“Then that is one angry fossil…”

Yeah, they were extinct. But fiction can do whatever it wants.

But why do ice ages happen…and why isn’t the world covered in glaciers now? Continue reading

The Reason for the Seasons

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As a born Californian, I never saw seasons this dramatically until I went to college in Flagstaff, Arizona.

I remember, in my first year here, when I was taking a walk around campus with a few friends. We passed over a riverbed where water was gently trickling along. Green grass and brush lined the banks. The sight absolutely captivated me. I had never seen anything like it, even in the springtime.

Then winter hit in all its blizzarding glory. At night, the temperature dropped below freezing. Snow fell in flurries that contrasted beautifully with the night. By morning, snow banks over a foot high lined the footpaths. To say nothing of the state of my winter jacket!

Summer in Flagstaff is hot. And I mean hot. It’s sweltering. Everyone crowds under the nearest tree. I experienced two days of it during orientation, and I never want to be here in the summer again.

Flagstaff’s autumn isn’t quite like the red and golden season depicted above. It pours. The rain sweeps down from the skies in torrents, soaking you through to the bone within minutes of being outside. Don’t think you’re safe under an umbrella. Better get some waterproof slacks to cover up those jeans, or you’ll be freezing in your classes all day.

I remember learning that my good blogging friend, the Momma, experiences the opposite seasons. When it’s pouring over here, it’s all green and sunny in Australia. When it snows here, she’s getting summer—I only hope it’s not as sweltering as it is in Flagstaff!

But why? Why should Australia have seasons that are opposite those in America? Continue reading

Stars: Naming and Brightness

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Meet Pegasus, and the constellations surrounding it. As I said in my last post, constellations are just regions of space.

Yes, they are named after mythical beasts and ancient queens, but for scientific purposes, all that matters are the regions they denote.This way, astronomers can easily find obscure, faint objects in the sky.

And telescopes can be easily programmed to find the same objects for those with less experience.

Keep in mind, though, that constellations only appear to fall in the same horizontal plane over Earth’s surface. Some of these stars, even in the same constellation, are light-years apart from one another.

So, in that case, the brighter stars must be closer to us and the dimmer stars farther away, right?

Wrong. Continue reading

The Ecliptic

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The ecliptic, as astronomers call it, is the apparent path of the sun against the background of the stars in the sky.

It’s useful because it tells us how to find the planets in the sky. They can be hard to spot if you don’t know where to look, but they will always be somewhere along one imaginary line that arcs across the sky—the ecliptic.

This pattern never changes. The planets don’t follow the ecliptic exactly, but it’s useful for getting an idea of where they should be.

But why does it work—and what exactly does it mean, when it’s obvious we can’t see the sun among the stars of the night sky? Continue reading

What is Precession?

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We have a bit of a shorter post today—I thought precession warranted its own post, before I go on to talking about the ecliptic.

Precession refers to the way Earth wobbles around on its axis, a bit like a top. This motion is caused by the sun and moon’s gravity tugging on the planet, and is key to understanding how many ancient cultures viewed the sky.

So what is precession, exactly? Continue reading

The Celestial Sphere

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The celestial sphere is certainly a strange way to think about the night sky.

It makes sense to use globes to diagram the Earth. The Earth, after all, is a roughly spherical planet, and flat paper maps have a way of distorting distances.

The sky, though? Seriously? I mean, we all know the universe isn’t exactly a defined sphere that barely extends past Earth’s surface, right?

I mean, this model—the “celestial sphere”—even tries to claim that all the stars sit on the plane of the sphere like thumbtacks on a ceiling. And that the planets in the solar system follow regular paths around this odd-looking sphere.

Pretty strange way to think about the night sky, right?

Well…I have to say, astronomers do have a point. Continue reading

Mapping the Sky

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I need you guys to help me with something.

Can you find a horse in this image of the night sky?

Yeah, me neither. I’m lost. I see the Great Square of Pegasus because I know what to look for, but I still don’t see a horse.

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Okay, so now I see half a horse. Where’s the rest?

Your guess is as good as mine, guys. Truth is, constellations very rarely look like what they’re named after. Constellations are more like relics of our ancient past than actual descriptors of what we see up there in the sky. But they do serve a purpose, even if that horse up there is missing his back legs.

I really find myself wondering if whoever made up Pegasus was concerned with animal rights… No animals were harmed in the making of this sky map…

Okay, yeah, never mind.

Where was I? Ah, that’s right. The purpose of the constellations, and the reason why it really doesn’t matter if they don’t look like their names say they do. Continue reading