Jupiter and Venus Change Earth’s Orbit Every 405,000 Years

JunoCam took this image during its eleventh close flyby of Jupiter on February 7, 2018. Image credit: NASA / JPL / SwRI / MSSS / David Marriott.

It is a well-known fact among Earth scientists that our planet periodically undergoes major changes in its climate. Over the course of the past 200 million years, our planet has experienced four major geological periods (the Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous and Cenozoic) and one major ice age (the Pliocene-Quaternary glaciation), all of which had a drastic impact on plant and animal life, as well as effecting the course of species evolution.

For decades, geologists have also understood that these changes are due in part to gradual shifts in the Earth’s orbit, which are caused by Venus and Jupiter, and repeat regularly every 405,000 years. But it was not until recently that a team of geologists and Earth scientists unearthed the first evidence of these changes – sediments and rock core samples that provide a geological record of how and when these changes took place.

The study which describes their findings, titled “Empirical evidence for stability of the 405-kiloyear Jupiter–Venus eccentricity cycle over hundreds of millions of years”, recently appeared in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA. The study was led by Dennis V. Bent, a, a Board of Governors professor from Rutgers University–New Brunswick, and included members from the Lamont–Doherty Earth Observatory, the Berkeley Geochronology Center, the Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona, and multiple universities.

Professor Dennis Kent with part of a 1,700-foot-long rock core obtained from Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona. Credit: Nick Romanenko/Rutgers University

As noted, the idea that Earth experiences periodic changes in its climate (which are related to changes in its orbit) has been understood for almost a century. These changes consist of Milankovitch Cycles, which consist of a 100,000-year cycle in the eccentricity of Earth’s orbit, a 41,000-year cycle in the tilt of Earth’s axis relative to its orbital plane,  and a 21,000-year cycle caused by changes in the planet’s axis.

Combined with the 405,000-year swing, which is the result of Venus and Jupiter’s gravitational influence, these shifts cause changes in how much solar energy reaches parts of our planet, which in turn influences Earth’s climate. Based on fossil records, these cycles are also known to have had a profound impact on life on Earth, which likely had an effect on the course of species of evolution. As Prof. Bent explained in a Rutgers Today press release:

“The climate cycles are directly related to how Earth orbits the sun and slight variations in sunlight reaching Earth lead to climate and ecological changes. The Earth’s orbit changes from close to perfectly circular to about 5 percent elongated especially every 405,000 years.”

For the sake of their study, Prof. Kent and his colleagues obtained sediment samples from the Newark basin, a prehistoric lake that spanned most of New Jersey, and a core rock sample from the Chinle Formation in Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona. This core rock measured about 518 meters (1700 feet) long, 6.35 cm (2.5 inches) in diameter, and was dated to the Triassic Period – ca. 202 to 253 million years ago.

Within ancient rocks in Arizona’s Petrified Forest National Park, scientists have identified signs of a regular variation in Earth’s orbit that influences climate. Credit: Kevin Krajick/Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory

The team then linked reversals in Earth’s magnetic field – where the north and south pole shift – to sediments with and without zircons (minerals with uranium that allow for radioactive dating) as well as to climate cycles in the geological record. What these showed was that the 405,000-years cycle is the most regular astronomical pattern linked to Earth’s annual orbit around the Sun.

The results further indicated that the cycle been stable for hundreds of millions of years and is still active today. As Prof. Kent explained, this constitutes the first verifiable evidence that celestial mechanics have played a historic role in natural shifts in Earth’s climate. As Prof. Kent indicated:

“It’s an astonishing result because this long cycle, which had been predicted from planetary motions through about 50 million years ago, has been confirmed through at least 215 million years ago. Scientists can now link changes in the climate, environment, dinosaurs, mammals and fossils around the world to this 405,000-year cycle in a very precise way.”

Previously, astronomers were able to calculate this cycle reliably back to around 50 million years, but found that the problem became too complex prior to this because too many shifting motions came into play. “There are other, shorter, orbital cycles, but when you look into the past, it’s very difficult to know which one you’re dealing with at any one time, because they change over time,” said Prof. Kent. “The beauty of this one is that it stands alone. It doesn’t change. All the other ones move over it.”

The super-continent Pangaea during the Permian period (300 – 250 million years ago). Credit: NAU Geology/Ron Blakey

In addition, scientists were unable to obtain accurate dates as to when Earth’s magnetic field reversed for 30 million years of the Late Triassic – between ca. 201.3 and 237 million years ago. This was a crucial period for the evolution of terrestrial life because it was when the Supercontinent of Pangaea broke up, and also when the dinosaurs and mammals first appeared.

This break-up led to the formation of the Atlantic Ocean as the continents drifted apart and coincided with a mass extinction event by the end of the period that effected the dinosaurs. With this new evidence, geologists, paleontologists and Earth scientists will be able to develop very precise timelines and accurately categorize fossil evidence dated to this period, which show differences and similarities over wide-ranging areas.

This research, and the ability to create accurate geological and climatological timelines that go back over 200 million years, is sure to have drastic implications. Not only will climate studies benefit from it, but also our understanding of how life, and even how our Solar System, evolved. What emerges from this could include a better understanding of how life could emerge in other star systems.
After all, if our search for extra-solar life life comes down to what we know about life on Earth, knowing more about how it evolved here will better the odds of finding it out there.

Catching Earth at Aphelion

Do you feel a little… distant today? The day after the 4th of July weekend brings with it the promise of barbecue leftovers and discount fireworks. It also sees our fair planet at aphelion, or its farthest point from the Sun. In 2015, aphelion (or apoapsis) occurs at 19:40 Universal Time (UT)/3:40 PM EDT today, as we sit 1.01668 astronomical units (AU) from the Sun. This translates to 152.1 million kilometres, or 94.5 million miles. We’re actually 3.3% closer to the Sun in early January than we are today. This also the latest aphelion has occurred on the calendar year since 2007, and it won’t fall on July 6th again until 2018. The insertion of an extra day every leap year causes the date for Earth aphelion to slowly vary between July 3rd and July 6th in the current epoch.

Image credit:
Perihelion and aphelion versus the solstices and the equinoxes. Image credit: Gothika/Duoduoduo/Wikimedia commons 3.0 license

Aphelion sees the Earth 4.8 million kilometers farther from the Sun than perihelion in early January. The eccentricity of our orbit—that is, how much our planet’s orbit varies from circular to elliptical—currently sits at 0.017 or 1.7%.

It is ironic that we’re actually farther from the Sun in the middle of northern hemisphere summer. It sure doesn’t seem like it on a sweltering Florida summer day, right? That’s because the 23.44 degree tilt of the Earth’s rotational axis is by far the biggest driver of the seasons. But our variation in distance from the Sun does play a factor in long term climate as well. We move a bit slower farther from the Sun, assuring northern hemisphere summers are currently a bit longer (by about 4 days) than winters. The variation in solar insolation between aphelion and perihelion currently favors hot dry summers in the southern hemisphere.

Image credit:
Perihelion and aphelion circumstances for the remainder of the decade. Credit: David Dickinson

But these factors are also slowly changing as well.

The eccentricity of our orbit varies from between 0.000055 and 0.0679 over a span of a ‘beat period’ of 100,000 years. Our current trend sees eccentricity slowly decreasing.

The tilt of our rotational axis varies between 22.1 and 24.5 degrees over 41,000 years. This value is also currently on a decreasing trend towards its shallow minimum around 11,800 AD.

And finally, the precession of the Earth’s axis and apsidal precession combine to slowly move the date of aphelion and perihelion one time around our calendar once every 21,000 years.

Image credit
The precession of the line of apsides versus the seasons. Image credit: Krishnavedala/Wikimedia commons 3.0 license.

These combine to form what are known as Milankovitch Cycles of long-term climate variation, which were first expressed by astronomer Milutin Milankovic in 1924. Anthropogenic climate change is a newcomer on the geologic scene, as human civilization does its very best to add a signal of its very own to the mix.

We also just passed the mid-point ‘pivot of the year’ on July 2nd. More than half of 2015 is now behind us.

Want to observe the aphelion and perihelion of the Earth for yourself? If you have a filtered rig set to photograph the Sun, try this: take an image of the Sun today, and take another on perihelion next year on January 2nd. Be sure to use the same settings, so that the only variation is the angular size of the Sun itself. The disk of the Sun varies from 33’ to 31’ across. This is tiny but discernible. Such variations in size between the Sun and the Moon can also mean the difference between a total solar and annular eclipse.

Image credit:
A perihelion versus aphelion day Sol. Image credit: David Dickinson

Should we term the aphelion Sun a #MiniSol? Because you can never have too many internet memes, right?

And did you know: the rotational axis of the Sun is inclined slightly versus the plane of the ecliptic to the tune of 7.25 degrees as well. In 2015, the Sun’s north pole was tipped our way on March 7th, and we’ll be looking at the south pole of our Sun on September 9th.

And of course, seasons on other planets are much more extreme. We’re just getting our first good looks at Pluto courtesy of New Horizons as it heads towards its historic flyby on July 14th. Pluto reached perihelion in 1989, and is headed towards aphelion 49 AU from the Sun on the far off date in 2114 AD. Sitting on Pluto, the Sun would shine at -19th magnitude—about the equivalent of the twilight period known as the ‘Blue Hour’ here on Earth—and the Sun would appear a scant one arc minute across, just large enough to show a very tiny disk.

All thoughts to consider as we start the long swing inward towards perihelion next January.

Happy aphelion!

Happy (or is it Merry?) Aphelion This Friday

This 4th of July weekend brings us one more reason to celebrate. On July 5th at approximately 11:00 AM EDT/15:00 UT, our fair planet Earth reaches aphelion, or its farthest point from the Sun at 1.0167 Astronomical Units (A.U.s) or 152,096,000 kilometres distant.

Though it may not seem it to northern hemisphere residents sizzling in the summer heat, we’re currently 3.3% farther from the Sun than our 147,098,290 kilometre (0.9833 A.U.) approach made in early January.

We thought it would be a fun project to capture this change. A common cry heard from denier circles as to scientific facts is “yeah, but have you ever SEEN it?” and in the case of the variation in distance between the Sun and the Earth from aphelion to perihelion, we can report that we have!

We typically observe the Sun in white light and hydrogen alpha using a standard rig and a Coronado Personal Solar Telescope  on every clear day. We have two filtered rigs for white light- a glass Orion filter for our 8-inch Schmidt-Cassegrain, and a homemade Baader solar filter for our DSLR. We prefer the DSLR rig for ease of deployment. We’ve described in a previous post how to make a safe and effective solar observing rig using Baader solar film.

Our solar imaging rig.
Our primary solar imaging rig. A Nikon D60 DSLR with a 400mm lens + a 2x teleconverter and Baader solar filter. Very easy to employ!

We’ve been imaging the Sun daily for a few years as part of our effort to make a home-brewed “solar rotation and activity movie” of the entire solar cycle.  We recently realized that we’ve imaged Sol very near aphelion and perihelion on previous years with this same fixed rig, and decided to check and see if we caught the apparent size variation of our nearest star. And sure enough, comparing the sizes of the two disks revealed a tiny but consistent variation.

It’s a common misconception that the seasons are due to our distance from the Sun. The insolation due to the 23.4° tilt of the rotational axis of the Earth is the dominant driving factor behind the seasons. (Don’t they still teach this in grade school? You’d be surprised at the things I’ve heard!) In the current epoch, a January perihelion and a July aphelion results in milder climatic summers in the northern hemisphere and more severe summers in the southern. The current difference in solar isolation between hemispheres due to eccentricity of Earth’s orbit is 6.8%.

The orbit of the Earth also currently has one of the lowest eccentricities (how far it deviates for circular) of the planets at 0.0167, or 1.67%. Only Neptune (1%) and Venus (0.68%) are “more circular.”

The orbital eccentricity of the Earth also oscillates over a 413,000 year period between 5.8% (about the same as Saturn) down to 0.5%. We’re currently at the low end of the scale, just below the mean value of 2.8%.

Variation in eccentricity is also coupled with other factors, such as the change in axial obliquity the precession of the line of apsides and the equinoxes to result in what are known as Milankovitch cycles. These variations in extremes play a role in the riddle of climate over hundreds of thousands of years.  Climate change deniers like to point out that there are large natural cycles in the records, and they’re right – but in the wrong direction. Note that looking solely at variations in the climate due to Milankovitch cycles, we should be in a cooling trend right now.  Against this backdrop, the signal of anthropogenic climate forcing and global dimming of albedo (which also masks warming via cloud cover and reflectivity) becomes even more ominous.

Aphelion can presently fall between July 2nd at 20:00 UT (as it did last in 1960) and July 7th at 00:00 UT as it last did on 2007.  The seemingly random variation is due to the position of the Earth with respect to the barycenter of the Earth-Moon system near the time of aphelion. The once every four year reset of the leap year (with the exception of the year 2000!) also plays a lesser role.

Perihelion and aphelion vs the solstices and equinoxes, an exagarated view.
Perihelion and aphelion vs the solstices and equinoxes, an exaggerated view. (Wikimedia Commons image under a 3.0 Unported Attribution-Share Alike license. Author Gothika/Doudoudou).

I love observing the Sun any time of year, as its face is constantly changing from day-to-day. There’s also no worrying about light pollution in the solar observing world, though we’ve noticed turbulence aloft (in the form of bad seeing) is an issue later in the day, especially in the summertime.  The rotational axis of the Sun is also tipped by about 7.25° relative to the ecliptic, and will present its north pole at maximum tilt towards us on September 8th. And yes, it does seem strange to think in terms of “the north pole of the Sun…”

We’re also approaching the solar maximum through the 2013-2014 time frame, another reason to break out those solar scopes.  This current Solar Cycle #24 has been off to a sputtering start, with the Sun active one week, and quiet the next. The last 2009 minimum was the quietest in a century, and there’s speculation that Cycle #25 may be missing all together.

And yes, the Moon also varies in its apparent size throughout its orbit as well, as hyped during last month’s perigee or Super Moon. Keep those posts handy- we’ve got one more Super Moon to endure this month on July 22nd. The New Moon on July 8th at 7:15UT/3:15 AM EDT will occur just 30 hours after apogee, and will hence be the “smallest New Moon” of 2013, with a lot less fanfare. Observers worldwide also have a shot at catching the slender crescent Moon on the evening of July 9th. This lunation and the sighting of the crescent Moon also marks the start of the month of Ramadan on the Muslim calendar.

Be sure to observe the aphelion Sun (with proper protection of course!) It would be uber-cool to see a stitched together animation of the Sun “growing & shrinking” from aphelion to perihelion and back. We could also use a hip Internet-ready meme for the perihelion & aphelion Sun- perhaps a “MiniSol?” A recent pun from Dr Marco Langbroek laid claim to the moniker of “#SuperSun;” in time for next January’s perihelion;

Marco quote

Could a new trend be afoot?