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How does Earth-sun distance impact climate? Rutgers expert discusses

A recent study co-authored by a member of the Rutgers Climate Institute examines how the distance between the Earth and the sun affects the Pacific Ocean and global weather patterns. – Photo by Silas Baisch / Unsplash

A recent study poses new questions about how the Earth’s position in its annual orbit can affect climate patterns in the Pacific Ocean and other locations.

The Earth orbits around the sun in an elliptical pattern that leads to variances in how close or far the two celestial bodies are. Proximity to the sun can affect the intensity of the sunlight Earth receives at various points during its orbit, according to a press release.

The severity of sunlight the planet receives when it is closest to the sun is seven percent greater than when it is farthest away. The increase in potency can affect the meteorological conditions experienced seasonally. ?

While the effect distance has on seasonal events has been studied, this new study used computer models to apply these insights to a region known as the Pacific cold tongue, according to the release.

Anthony Broccoli, co-director of the Rutgers Climate Institute and a co-author of the study, said the cold tongue is a region of the Pacific Ocean close to the equator in which the waters are colder than the surrounding areas.

This area of the ocean can undergo a warming cycle that subsequently affects climatic trends in the U.S., driving up winter temperatures in northern regions of the country and decreasing those in the south, he said.

The heating and cooling throughout the cycle can be linked to the angle at which the planet tilts, according to the release. This angle also shapes global weather trends by warming the northern and southern parts of the planet at different times and affecting wind flow at the equator.

This research raised questions about whether deviances in the angle of the planet’s rotation, which occur every 22,000 years, played a role in global weather trends historically.

"The finding calls for reassessment of current understanding of the Pacific cold tongue annual cycle and re-evaluation of tropical Pacific palaeoclimate records for annual cycle phase changes," the authors said in the study.

Previously, changes to the degree of the planet’s axis have correlated with significant meteorological events, such as the ice ages, Broccoli said. But modifications to the planet’s axis do not cause sudden changes to the climate, domestically or globally.

"The much more rapid changes in climate we are seeing today have a different cause, namely the increase in greenhouse gases in the atmosphere," he said.

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