Milankovitch cycles describe the collective effects of changes in the Earth's movements on its climate over thousands of years. The term is named for Serbian geophysicist and astronomer Milutin Milanković. In the 1920s, he hypothesized that variations in eccentricity, axial tilt, and precession of the Earth's orbit resulted in cyclical variation in the solar radiation reaching the Earth, and that this orbital forcing strongly influenced climatic patterns on Earth.
Similar astronomical hypotheses had been advanced in the 19th century by Joseph Adhemar, James Croll and others, but verification was difficult because there was no reliably dated evidence, and because it was unclear which periods were important.
Now, materials on Earth that have been unchanged for millennia (obtained via ice, rock, and deep ocean cores) are being studied to indicate the history of Earth's climate. Though they are consistent with the Milankovitch hypothesis, there are still several observations that the hypothesis does not explain.
The Earth's rotation around its axis, and revolution around the Sun, evolve over time due to gravitational interactions with other bodies in the solar system. The variations are complex, but a few cycles are dominant.
The Earth's orbit varies between nearly circular and mildly elliptical (its eccentricity varies). When the orbit is more elongated, there is more variation in the distance between the Earth and the Sun, and in the amount of solar radiation, at different times in the year. In addition, the rotational tilt of the Earth (its obliquity) changes slightly.
A greater tilt makes the seasons more extreme. Finally, the direction in the fixed stars pointed to by the Earth's axis changes (axial precession), while the Earth's elliptical orbit around the Sun rotates (apsidal precession). The combined effect is that proximity to the Sun occurs during different astronomical seasons.
Milankovitch studied changes in these movements of the Earth, which alter the amount and location of solar radiation reaching the Earth. This is known as solar forcing (an example of radiative forcing). Milankovitch emphasized the changes experienced at 65° north due to the great amount of land at that latitude. Land masses change temperature more quickly than oceans, because of the mixing of surface and deep water and the fact that soil has a lower volumetric heat capacity than water.
Orbital shape (eccentricity)
The Earth's orbit approximates an ellipse. Eccentricity measures the departure of this ellipse from circularity. The shape of the Earth's orbit varies between nearly circular (with the lowest eccentricity of 0.000055) and mildly elliptical (highest eccentricity of 0.0679) Its geometric or logarithmic mean is 0.0019. The major component of these variations occurs with a period of 413,000 years (eccentricity variation of ±0.012). Other components have 95,000-year and 125,000-year cycles (with a beat period of 400,000 years). They loosely combine into a 100,000-year cycle (variation of −0.03 to +0.02). The present eccentricity is 0.017 and decreasing.
Eccentricity varies primarily due to the gravitational pull of Jupiter and Saturn. However, the semi-major axis of the orbital ellipse remains unchanged; according to perturbation theory, which computes the evolution of the orbit, the semi-major axis is invariant. The orbital period (the length of a sidereal year) is also invariant, because according to Kepler's third law, it is determined by the semi-major axis.
Effect on temperature
The semi-major axis is a constant. Therefore, when Earth's orbit becomes more eccentric, the semi-minor axis shortens. This increases the magnitude of seasonal changes.
The relative increase in solar irradiation at closest approach to the Sun (perihelion) compared to the irradiation at the furthest distance (aphelion) is slightly larger than four times the eccentricity. For Earth's current orbital eccentricity, incoming solar radiation varies by about 6.8%, while the distance from the Sun currently varies by only 3.4% (5.1 million km).
Perihelion presently occurs around January 3, while aphelion is around July 4. When the orbit is at its most eccentric, the amount of solar radiation at perihelion will be about 23% more than at aphelion. However, the Earth's eccentricity is always so small that the variation in solar irradiation is a minor factor in seasonal climate variation, compared to axial tilt and even compared to the relative ease of heating the larger land masses of the northern hemisphere.
Effect on lengths of seasons
|2005||Winter solstice||Summer solstice||21 December 2005 18:35||88.99 days|
|2006||Spring equinox||Autumn equinox||20 March 2006 18:26||92.75 days|
|2006||Summer solstice||Winter solstice||21 June 2006 12:26||93.65 days|
|2006||Autumn equinox||Spring equinox||23 September 2006 4:03||89.85 days|
|2006||Winter solstice||Summer solstice||22 December 2006 0:22||88.99 days|
|2007||Spring equinox||Autumn equinox||21 March 2007 0:07||92.75 days|
|2007||Summer solstice||Winter solstice||21 June 2007 18:06||93.66 days|
|2007||Autumn equinox||Spring equinox||23 September 2007 9:51||89.85 days|
|2007||Winter solstice||Summer solstice||22 December 2007 06:08|
The seasons are quadrants of the Earth's orbit, marked by the two solstices and the two equinoxes. Kepler's second law states that a body in orbit traces equal areas over equal times; its orbital velocity is highest around perihelion and lowest around aphelion. The Earth spends less time near perihelion and more time near aphelion. This means that the lengths of the seasons vary.
Perihelion currently occurs around January 3, so the Earth's greater velocity shortens winter and autumn in the northern hemisphere. Summer in the northern hemisphere is 4.66 days longer than winter, and spring is 2.9 days longer than autumn.
Greater eccentricity increases the variation in the Earth's orbital velocity. However, currently, the Earth's orbit is becoming less eccentric (more nearly circular). This will make the seasons more similar in length.
Axial tilt (obliquity)
The angle of the Earth's axial tilt with respect to the orbital plane (the obliquity of the ecliptic) varies between 22.1° and 24.5°, over a cycle of about 41,000 years. The current tilt is 23.44°, roughly halfway between its extreme values. The tilt last reached its maximum in 8,700 BCE. It is now in the decreasing phase of its cycle, and will reach its minimum around the year 11,800 CE.
Increased tilt increases the amplitude of the seasonal cycle in insolation, providing more solar radiation in each hemisphere's summer and less in winter. However, these effects are not uniform everywhere on the Earth's surface. Increased tilt increases the total annual solar radiation at higher latitudes, and decreases the total closer to the equator.
The current trend of decreasing tilt, by itself, will promote milder seasons (warmer winters and colder summers), as well as an overall cooling trend. Because most of the planet's snow and ice lies at high latitude, decreasing tilt may encourage the onset of an ice age for two reasons: There is less overall summer insolation, and also less insolation at higher latitudes, which melts less of the previous winter's snow and ice.
Axial precession is the trend in the direction of the Earth's axis of rotation relative to the fixed stars, with a period of 25,771.5 years. This motion means that eventually Polaris will no longer be the north pole star. It is caused by the tidal forces exerted by the Sun and the Moon on the solid Earth; both contribute roughly equally to this effect.
Currently, perihelion occurs during the southern hemisphere's summer. This means that solar radiation due to (1) axial tilt inclining the southern hemisphere toward the Sun and (2) the Earth's proximity to the Sun, both reach maximum during the southern summer and both reach minimum during the southern winter. Their effects on heating are thus additive, which means that seasonal variation in irradiation of the southern hemisphere is more extreme. In the northern hemisphere, these two factors reach maximum at opposite times of the year: The north is tilted toward the Sun when the Earth is furthest from the Sun. The two effects work in opposite directions, resulting in less extreme variations in insolation.
In about 13,000 years, the north pole will be tilted toward the Sun when the Earth is at perihelion. Axial tilt and orbital eccentricity will both contribute their maximum increase in solar radiation during the northern hemisphere's summer. Axial precession will promote more extreme variation in irradiation of the northern hemisphere and less extreme variation in the south.
When the Earth's axis is aligned such that aphelion and perihelion occur near the equinoxes, axial tilt will not be aligned with or against eccentricity.
In addition, the orbital ellipse itself precesses in space, in an irregular fashion, completing a full cycle every 112,000 years relative to the fixed stars. Apsidal precession occurs in the plane of the ecliptic and alters the orientation of the Earth's orbit relative to the ecliptic. This happens primarily as a result of interactions with Jupiter and Saturn. Smaller contributions are also made by the sun's oblateness and by the effects of general relativity that are well known for Mercury.
Apsidal precession combines with the 25,771.5-year cycle of axial precession (see above) to vary the position in the year that the Earth reaches perihelion. Apsidal precession shortens this period to 23,000 years on average (varying between 20,800 and 29,000 years).
As the orientation of Earth's orbit changes, each season will gradually start earlier in the year. Precession means the Earth's nonuniform motion (see above) will affect different seasons. Winter, for instance, will be in a different section of the orbit. When the Earth's apsides are aligned with the equinoxes, the length of spring and summer combined will equal that of autumn and winter. When they are aligned with the solstices, the difference in the length of these seasons will be greatest.
The inclination of Earth's orbit drifts up and down relative to its present orbit. This three-dimensional movement is known as "precession of the ecliptic" or "planetary precession". Earth's current inclination relative to the invariable plane (the plane that represents the angular momentum of the Solar System, approximately the orbital plane of Jupiter) is 1.57°.
Milankovitch did not study apsidal precession. It was discovered more recently and measured, relative to Earth's orbit, to have a period of about 70,000 years. However, when measured independently of Earth's orbit, but relative to the invariable plane, precession has a period of about 100,000 years. This period is very similar to the 100,000-year eccentricity period. Both periods closely match the 100,000-year pattern of glacial events.
Artifacts taken from the Earth have been studied to infer the cycles of past climate. A study of the chronology of Antarctic ice cores using oxygen-nitrogen ratios in air bubbles trapped in the ice, which appear to respond directly to the local insolation, concluded that the climatic response documented in the ice cores was driven by northern hemisphere insolation as proposed by the Milankovitch hypothesis.
Analysis of deep-ocean cores, analysis of lake depths, and a seminal paper by Hays, Imbrie, and Shackleton provide additional validation through physical artifacts. Climate records contained in a 1,700 ft (520 m) core of rock drilled in Arizona show a pattern synchronized with Earth's eccentricity, and cores drilled in New England match it, going back 215 million years.
Of all the orbital cycles, Milankovitch believed that obliquity had the greatest effect on climate, and that it did so by varying the summer insolation in northern high latitudes. Therefore, he deduced a 41,000-year period for ice ages. However, subsequent research has shown that ice age cycles of the Quaternary glaciation over the last million years have been at a period of 100,000 years, which matches the eccentricity cycle.
Various explanations for this discrepancy have been proposed, including frequency modulation or various feedbacks (from carbon dioxide, cosmic rays, or from ice sheet dynamics). Some models can reproduce the 100,000-year cycles as a result of non-linear interactions between small changes in the Earth's orbit and internal oscillations of the climate system.
Jung-Eun Lee of Brown University proposes that precession changes the amount of energy that Earth absorbs, because the southern hemisphere's greater ability to grow sea ice reflects more energy away from Earth. Moreover, Lee says, "Precession only matters when eccentricity is large. That's why we see a stronger 100,000-year pace than a 21,000-year pace."
In fact, from 1–3 million years ago, climate cycles did match the 41,000-year cycle in obliquity. After 1 million years ago, the Mid-Pleistocene Transition (MPT) occurred with switch to the 100,000-year cycle matching eccentricity. The transition problem refers to the need to explain what changed 1 million years ago. The MPT can now be reproduced in numerical simulations that include a decreasing trend in carbon dioxide and glacially induced removal of regolith, as explained in more detail in the article Mid-Pleistocene Transition.
Interpretation of unsplit peak variances
Even the well-dated climate records of the last million years do not exactly match the shape of the eccentricity curve. Eccentricity has component cycles of 95,000 and 125,000 years. However, some researchers say the records do not show these peaks, but only show a single cycle of 100,000 years.
Unsynched stage 5 observation
Deep-sea core samples show that the interglacial interval known as marine isotope stage 5 began 130,000 years ago. This is 10,000 years before the solar forcing that the Milankovitch hypothesis predicts. (This is also known as the causality problem, because the effect precedes the putative cause.)
Predicted effects mystery
Artifacts show that the variation in Earth's climate is much more extreme than the variation in the intensity of solar radiation calculated as the Earth's orbit evolves. If orbital forcing causes climate change, science needs to explain why the observed effect is amplified compared to the theoretical effect.
Some climate systems exhibit amplification (positive feedback) and others exhibit damping responses (negative feedback). An example of amplification would be if, with the land masses around 65° north covered in year-round ice, solar energy were reflected away. Amplification would mean that an ice age induces changes that impede orbital forcing from ending the ice age.
The Earth's current orbital inclination is 1.57° (see above). Earth presently moves through the invariable plane around January 9 and July 9. At these times, there is an increase in meteors and noctilucent clouds. If this is because there is a disk of dust and debris in the invariable plane, then when the Earth's orbital inclination is near 0° and it is orbiting through this dust, materials could be accreted into the atmosphere. This process could explain the narrowness of the 100,000-year climate cycle.
Present and future conditions
Since orbital variations are predictable, any model that relates orbital variations to climate can be run forward to predict future climate, with two caveats: the mechanism by which orbital forcing influences climate is not definitive; and non-orbital effects can be important (for example, Human impact on the environment principally increases in greenhouse gases result in a warmer climate).
An often-cited 1980 orbital model by Imbrie predicted "the long-term cooling trend that began some 6,000 years ago will continue for the next 23,000 years." More recent work suggests that orbital variations should gradually increase 65° N summer insolation over the next 25,000 years. Earth's orbit will become less eccentric for about the next 100,000 years, so changes in this insolation will be dominated by changes in obliquity, and should not decline enough to permit a new glacial period in the next 50,000 years.
Effects beyond Earth
Other bodies in the Solar System undergo orbital fluctuations like the Milankovitch cycles. Any geological effects would not be as pronounced as climate change on the Earth, but might cause the movement of elements in the solid state:
Mars has no moon large enough to stabilize its obliquity, which has varied from 10 to 70 degrees. This would explain recent observations of its surface compared to evidence of different conditions in its past, such as the extent of its polar caps.
Saturn's moon Titan has a cycle of approximately 60,000 years that could change the location of the methane lakes. Neptune's moon Triton has a variation similar to Titan's, which could cause its solid nitrogen deposits to migrate over long time scales.
Scientists using computer models to study extreme axial tilts have concluded that high obliquity could cause extreme climate variations, and while that would probably not render a planet uninhabitable, it could pose difficulty for land-based life in affected areas. Most such planets would nevertheless allow development of both simple and more complex lifeforms. Although the obliquity they studied is more extreme than Earth ever experiences, there are scenarios 1.5 to 4.5 billion years from now, as the Moon's stabilizing effect lessens, where obliquity could leave its current range and the poles could eventually point almost directly at the Sun.
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