Orbital forcing

Orbital forcing

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Orbital forcing is the effect on climate
Climate encompasses the statistics of temperature, humidity, atmospheric pressure, wind, rainfall, atmospheric particle count and other meteorological elemental measurements in a given region over long periods...

 of slow changes in the tilt of the Earth
Earth is the third planet from the Sun, and the densest and fifth-largest of the eight planets in the Solar System. It is also the largest of the Solar System's four terrestrial planets...

's axis and shape of the orbit
In physics, an orbit is the gravitationally curved path of an object around a point in space, for example the orbit of a planet around the center of a star system, such as the Solar System...

 (see Milankovitch cycles
Milankovitch cycles
Milankovitch theory describes the collective effects of changes in the Earth's movements upon its climate, named after Serbian civil engineer and mathematician Milutin Milanković, who worked on it during First World War internment...

). These orbital changes change the total amount of sunlight reaching the Earth by up to 25% at mid-latitudes (from 400 to 500 Wm−2 at latitudes of 60 degrees). In this context, the term "forcing" signifies a physical process that affects the Earth's climate.

This mechanism is believed to be responsible for the timing of the ice age
Ice age
An ice age or, more precisely, glacial age, is a generic geological period of long-term reduction in the temperature of the Earth's surface and atmosphere, resulting in the presence or expansion of continental ice sheets, polar ice sheets and alpine glaciers...

 cycles. A strict application of the Milankovitch theory does not allow the prediction of a "sudden" ice age (rapid being anything under a century or two), since the fastest orbital period is about 20,000 years. The timing of past glacial periods coincides very well with the predictions of the Milankovitch theory, and these effects can be calculated into the future.


It is sometimes asserted that the length of the current interglacial temperature peak will be similar to the length of the preceding interglacial peak (Sangamonian/Eem Stage), and that therefore we might be nearing the end of this warm period. However, this conclusion is probably mistaken: the lengths of previous interglacials were not particularly regular (see graphic at right). Berger and Loutre (2002) argue that “with or without human perturbations, the current warm climate may last another 50,000 years. The reason is a minimum in the eccentricity of Earth's orbit around the Sun.” Also, Archer and Ganopolski (2005) report that probable future CO2 emissions may be enough to suppress the glacial cycle for the next 500 kyr.

Note in the graphic the strong 100,000 year periodicity of the cycles, and the striking asymmetry of the curves. This asymmetry is believed to result from complex interactions of feedback mechanisms. It has been observed that ice ages deepen by progressive steps, but the recovery to interglacial conditions occurs in one big step.

Orbital mechanics require that the length of the seasons be proportional to the swept areas of the seasonal quadrants, so when the eccentricity is extreme, the seasons on the far side of the orbit can last substantially longer. Today, when autumn and winter in the northern hemisphere occur at closest approach, the earth is moving at its maximum velocity and therefore autumn and winter are slightly shorter than spring and summer.

Today, northern hemisphere summer is 4.66 days longer than winter and spring is 2.9 days longer than autumn. As axial precession
Precession is a change in the orientation of the rotation axis of a rotating body. It can be defined as a change in direction of the rotation axis in which the second Euler angle is constant...

 changes the place in the Earth's orbit where the solstices and equinoxes occur, Northern hemisphere winters will get longer and summers will get shorter, eventually creating conditions believed to be favorable for triggering the next glacial period.

The arrangements of land masses on the Earth's surface are believed to reinforce the orbital forcing effects. Comparisons of plate tectonic continent reconstructions
Plate reconstruction
Plate reconstruction is the process of reconstructing the positions of tectonic plates relative to each other or to other reference frames, such as the earth's magnetic field or groups of hotspots, in the geological past...

 and paleoclimatic studies show that the Milankovitch cycles have the greatest effect during geologic eras when landmasses have been concentrated in polar regions, as is the case today. Greenland
Greenland is an autonomous country within the Kingdom of Denmark, located between the Arctic and Atlantic Oceans, east of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago. Though physiographically a part of the continent of North America, Greenland has been politically and culturally associated with Europe for...

, Antarctica, and the northern portions of Europe
Europe is, by convention, one of the world's seven continents. Comprising the westernmost peninsula of Eurasia, Europe is generally 'divided' from Asia to its east by the watershed divides of the Ural and Caucasus Mountains, the Ural River, the Caspian and Black Seas, and the waterways connecting...

, Asia
Asia is the world's largest and most populous continent, located primarily in the eastern and northern hemispheres. It covers 8.7% of the Earth's total surface area and with approximately 3.879 billion people, it hosts 60% of the world's current human population...

, and North America
North America
North America is a continent wholly within the Northern Hemisphere and almost wholly within the Western Hemisphere. It is also considered a northern subcontinent of the Americas...

 are situated such that a minor change in solar energy will tip the balance between year-round snow/ice preservation and complete summer melting. The presence of snow and ice is a well-understood positive feedback
Positive feedback
Positive feedback is a process in which the effects of a small disturbance on a system include an increase in the magnitude of the perturbation. That is, A produces more of B which in turn produces more of A. In contrast, a system that responds to a perturbation in a way that reduces its effect is...

mechanism for climate.

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