Thursday, July 8, 2010



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. Milanković mathematically theorised that variations in eccentricity, axial tilt, and precession of the Earth's orbit determined climatic patterns on Earth.

The Earth's axis completes one full cycle of precession approximately every 26,000 years. At the same time, the elliptical orbit rotates, more slowly, leading to a 21,000-year cycle between the seasons and the orbit. In addition, the angle between Earth's rotational axis and the normal to the plane of its orbit moves from 22.1 degrees to 24.5 degrees and back again on a 41,000-year cycle; currently, this angle is 23.44 degrees and is decreasing.

Other astronomical theories were advanced by Joseph Adhemar, James Croll and others, but verification was difficult due to the absence of reliably dated evidence and doubts as to exactly which periods were important. Not until the advent of deep-ocean cores and a seminal paper by Hays, Imbrie and Shackleton, "Variations in the Earth's Orbit: Pacemaker of the Ice Ages", in Science, 1976,[1] did the theory attain its present state.

For many years now I’ve been following the pros and cons of scientific debates regarding the Milankovitch Cycle. This theory holds that as the Earth circles the Sun, there is a 100,000 yr +/- cycle, in which the High Latitudes of the Northern Hemisphere are at their coldest in each of the attitudes created by Eccentricity, Axial Tilt, and Precession (each on a different time cycle), when all coincide to produce a Glaciation, which from start to finish lasts about 40.000 years.

But there is no debate that at the present time we are now midway between the end of the last glaciation (about 9,000 yrs ago) and the beginning of the next. We are now at or near the maximum extent of the subsequent warming-up period, and poised - as some would have it - at the beginning of the plunge toward the next glaciation.

So, one is forced to ask, is the climate going to continue to naturally warm up as we approach the maximum Northern Hemispheric solar radiation in the present Malenkovitch Cycle ? Or are we at or passed the tipping point, and now cooling down towards the beginning of the next Glaciation ? Are the weather changes we are now witnessing partly the result of the of the former, or are they precursors of the latter ? (more below)

Carbon dioxide did not cause the end of the last ice age, a new study in Science suggests, contrary to past inferences from ice core records.

“There has been this continual reference to the correspondence between CO2 and climate change as reflected in ice core records as justification for the role of CO2 in climate change,” said USC geologist Lowell Stott, lead author of the study, slated for advance online publication Sept. 27 in Science Express.

“You can no longer argue that CO2 alone caused the end of the ice ages.”

Deep-sea temperatures warmed about 1,300 years before the tropical surface ocean and well before the rise in atmospheric CO2, the study found. The finding suggests the rise in greenhouse gas was likely a result of warming and may have accelerated the meltdown – but was not its main cause.

The study does not question the fact that CO2 plays a key role in climate.

The best estimate from other studies of when CO2 began to rise is no earlier than 18,000 years ago. Yet this study shows that the deep sea, which reflects oceanic temperature trends, started warming about 19,000 years ago.

“What this means is that a lot of energy went into the ocean long before the rise in atmospheric CO2,” Stott said.

But where did this energy come from" Evidence pointed southward.

Water’s salinity and temperature are properties that can be used to trace its origin – and the warming deep water appeared to come from the Antarctic Ocean, the scientists wrote.

This water then was transported northward over 1,000 years via well-known deep-sea currents, a conclusion supported by carbon-dating evidence."


The first of the three Milankovitch Cycles is the Earth's eccentricity. Eccentricity is, simply, the shape of the Earth's orbit around the Sun. This constantly fluctuating, orbital shape ranges between more and less elliptical (0 to 5% ellipticity) on a cycle of about 100,000 years. These oscillations, from more elliptic to less elliptic, are of prime importance to glaciation in that it alters the distance from the Earth to the Sun, thus changing the distance the Sun's short wave radiation must travel to reach Earth, subsequently reducing or increasing the amount of radiation received at the Earth's surface in different seasons.

Today a difference of only about 3 percent occurs between aphelion (farthest point) and perihelion (closest point). This 3 percent difference in distance means that Earth experiences a 6 percent increase in received solar energy in January than in July. This 6 percent range of variability is not always the case, however. When the Earth's orbit is most elliptical the amount of solar energy received at the perihelion would be in the range of 20 to 30 percent more than at aphelion. Most certainly these continually altering amounts of received solar energy around the globe result in prominent changes in the Earth's climate and glacial regimes. At present the orbital eccentricity is nearly at the minimum of its cycle.

Axial Tilt

Axial tilt, the second of the three Milankovitch Cycles, is the inclination of the Earth's axis in relation to its plane of orbit around the Sun. Oscillations in the degree of Earth's axial tilt occur on a periodicity of 41,000 years from 21.5 to 24.5 degrees.

Today the Earth's axial tilt is about 23.5 degrees, which largely accounts for our seasons. Because of the periodic variations of this angle the severity of the Earth's seasons changes. With less axial tilt the Sun's solar radiation is more evenly distributed between winter and summer. However, less tilt also increases the difference in radiation receipts between the equatorial and polar regions.

One hypothesis for Earth's reaction to a smaller degree of axial tilt is that it would promote the growth of ice sheets. This response would be due to a warmer winter, in which warmer air would be able to hold more moisture, and subsequently produce a greater amount of snowfall. In addition, summer temperatures would be cooler, resulting in less melting of the winter's accumulation. At present, axial tilt is in the middle of its range.


The third and final of the Milankovitch Cycles is Earth's precession. Precession is the Earth's slow wobble as it spins on axis. This wobbling of the Earth on its axis can be likened to a top running down, and beginning to wobble back and forth on its axis. The precession of Earth wobbles from pointing at Polaris (North Star) to pointing at the star Vega. When this shift to the axis pointing at Vega occurs, Vega would then be considered the North Star. This top-like wobble, or precession, has a periodicity of 23,000 years.

Due to this wobble a climatically significant alteration must take place. When the axis is tilted towards Vega the positions of the Northern Hemisphere winter and summer solstices will coincide with the aphelion and perihelion, respectively. This means that the Northern Hemisphere will experience winter when the Earth is furthest from the Sun and summer when the Earth is closest to the Sun. This coincidence will result in greater seasonal contrasts. At present, the Earth is at perihelion very close to the winter solstice.


These variables are only important because the Earth has an asymmetric distribution of landmasses, with virtually all (except Antarctica) located in the Northern Hemisphere.

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