What is Earth’s Axial Tilt?

In ancient times, the scholars, seers and magi of various cultures believed that the world took a number of forms – ranging from a ziggurat or a cube to the more popular flat disc surrounded by a sea. But thanks to the ongoing efforts of astronomers, we have come to understand that it is in fact a sphere, and one of many planets in a system that orbits the Sun.

Within the past few centuries, improvements in both scientific instruments and more comprehensive observations of the heavens have also helped astronomers to determine (with extreme accuracy) what the nature of Earth’s orbit is. In addition to knowing the precise distance from the Sun, we also know that our planet orbits the Sun with one pole constantly tilted towards it.

Earth’s Axis:

This is what is known axial tilt, where a planet’s vertical axis is tilted a certain degree towards the ecliptic of the object it orbits (in this case, the Sun). Such a tilt results in there being a difference in how much sunlight reaches a given point on the surface during the course of a year. In the case of Earth, the axis is tilted towards the ecliptic of the Sun at approximately 23.44° (or 23.439281° to be exact).

Earth's axis points north to Polaris, the northern hemisphere's North Star, and south to dim Sigma Octantis. Illustration: Bob King
Earth’s axis points north to Polaris, the northern hemisphere’s North Star, and south to dim Sigma Octantis. Credit: Bob King

Seasonal Variations:

This tilt in Earth’s axis is what is responsible for seasonal changes during the course of the year. When the North Pole is pointed towards the Sun, the northern hemisphere experiences summer and the southern hemisphere experiences winter. When the South Pole is pointed towards the Sun, six months later, the situation is reversed.

In addition to variations in temperature, seasonal changes also result in changes to the diurnal cycle. Basically, in the summer, the day last longer and the Sun climbs higher in the sky. In winter, the days become shorter and the Sun is lower in the sky. In northern temperate latitudes, the Sun rises north of true east during the summer solstice, and sets north of true west, reversing in the winter. The Sun rises south of true east in the summer for the southern temperate zone, and sets south of true west.

The situation becomes extreme above the Arctic Circle, where there is no daylight at all for part of the year, and for up to six months at the North Pole itself (known as a “polar night”). In the southern hemisphere, the situation is reversed, with the South Pole oriented opposite the direction of the North Pole and experiencing what is known as a “midnight sun” (a day that lasts 24 hours).

The four seasons can be determined by the solstices (the point of maximum axial tilt toward or away from the Sun) and the equinoxes (when the direction of tilt and the Sun are perpendicular). In the northern hemisphere, winter solstice occurs around December 21st, summer solstice around June 21st, spring equinox around March 20th, and autumnal equinox on or about September 22nd or 23rd. In the southern hemisphere, the situation is reversed, with the summer and winter solstices exchanged and the spring and autumnal equinox dates swapped.

Changes Over Time:

The angle of the Earth’s tilt is relatively stable over long periods of time. However, Earth’s axis does undergo a slight irregular motion known as nutation – a rocking, swaying, or nodding motion (like a gyroscope) – that has a period of 18.6 years. Earth’s axis is also subject to a slight wobble (like a spinning top), which is causing its orientation to change over time.

Known as precession, this process is causing the date of the seasons to slowly change over a 25,800 year cycle. Precession is not only the reason for the difference between a sidereal year and a tropical year, it is also the reason why the seasons will eventually flip. When this happens, summer will occur in the northern hemisphere during December and winter during June.

Precession of the Equinoxes. Image credit: NASA
Artist’s rendition of the Earth’s rotation and the precession of the Equinoxes. Credit: NASA

Precession, along with other orbital factors, is also the reason for what is known as “length-of-day variation”. Essentially, this is a phenomna where the dates of Earth’s perihelion and aphelion (which currently take place on Jan. 3rd and July 4th, respectively) change over time. Both of these motions are caused by the varying attraction of the Sun and the Moon on the Earth’s equatorial region.

Needless to say, Earth’s rotation and orbit around the Sun are not as simple we once though. During the Scientific Revolution, it was a huge revelation to learn that the Earth was not a fixed point in the Universe, and that the “celestial spheres” were planets like Earth. But even then, astronomers like Copernicus and Galileo still believed that the Earth’s orbit was a perfect circle, and could not imagine that its rotation was subject to imperfections.

It’s only been with time that the true nature of our planet’s inclination and movements have come to be understood. And what we know is that they lead to some serious variations over time – both in the short run (i.e. seasonal change), and in the long-run.

We’ve written many articles about the Earth and the seasons for Universe Today. Here’s Why is the Earth Tilted?, The Rotation of the Earth, What Causes Day and Night?, How Fast Does the Earth Rotate?, Why Does the Earth Spin?

If you’d like more information on the Earth’s axis, check out NASA’s Solar System Exploration Guide on Earth. And here’s a link to NASA’s Earth Observatory.

We’ve also recorded an episode of Astronomy Cast all about Earth. Listen here, Episode 51: Earth.

10 Interesting Facts About Earth

Planet Earth. That shiny blue marble that has fascinated humanity since they first began to walk across its surface. And why shouldn’t it fascinate us? In addition to being our home and the place where life as we know it originated, it remains the only planet we know of where life thrives. And over the course of the past few centuries, we have learned much about Earth, which has only deepened our fascination with it.

But how much does the average person really know about the planet Earth? You’ve lived on Planet Earth all of your life, but how much do you really know about the ground underneath your feet? You probably have lots of interesting facts rattling around in your brain, but here are 10 more interesting facts about Earth that you may, or may not know.

1. Plate Tectonics Keep the Planet Comfortable:

Earth is the only planet in the Solar System with plate tectonics. Basically, the outer crust of the Earth is broken up into regions known as tectonic plates. These are floating on top of the magma interior of the Earth and can move against one another. When two plates collide, one plate will subduct (go underneath another), and where they pull apart, they will allow fresh crust to form.

The Earth's Tectonic Plates. Credit: msnucleus.org
The Earth’s Tectonic Plates. Credit: msnucleus.org

This process is very important, and for a number of reasons. Not only does it lead to tectonic resurfacing and geological activity (i.e. earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, mountain-building, and oceanic trench formation), it is also intrinsic to the carbon cycle. When microscopic plants in the ocean die, they fall to the bottom of the ocean.

Over long periods of time, the remnants of this life, rich in carbon, are carried back into the interior of the Earth and recycled. This pulls carbon out of the atmosphere, which makes sure we don’t suffer a runaway greenhouse effect, which is what happened on Venus. Without the action of plate tectonics, there would be no way to recycle this carbon, and the Earth would become an overheated, hellish place.

2. Earth is Almost a Sphere:

Many people tend to think that the Earth is a sphere. In fact, between the 6th cenury BCE and the modern era, this remained the scientific consensus. But thanks to modern astronomy and space travel, scientists have since come to understand that the Earth is actually shaped like a flattened sphere (aka. an oblate spheroid).

This shape is similar to a sphere, but where the poles are flattened and the equator bulges. In the case of the Earth, this bulge is due to our planet’s rotation. This means that the measurement from pole to pole is about 43 km less than the diameter of Earth across the equator. Even though the tallest mountain on Earth is Mount Everest, the feature that’s furthest from the center of the Earth is actually Mount Chimborazo in Ecuador.

The Earth's layers, showing the Inner and Outer Core, the Mantle, and Crust. Credit: discovermagazine.com
The Earth’s layers, showing the Inner and Outer Core, the Mantle, and Crust. Credit: discovermagazine.com

3. Earth is Mostly Iron, Oxygen and Silicon:

If you could separate the Earth out into piles of material, you’d get 32.1 % iron, 30.1% oxygen, 15.1% silicon, and 13.9% magnesium. Of course, most of this iron is actually located at the core of the Earth. If you could actually get down and sample the core, it would be 88% iron. And if you sampled the Earth’s crust, you’d find that 47% of it is oxygen.

4. 70% of the Earth’s Surface is Covered in Water:

When astronauts first went into the space, they looked back at the Earth with human eyes for the first time. Based on their observations, the Earth acquired the nickname the “Blue Planet:. And it’s no surprise, seeing as how 70% of our planet is covered with oceans. The remaining 30% is the solid crust that is located above sea level, hence why it is called the “continental crust”.

5. The Earth’s Atmosphere Extends to a Distance of 10,000 km:

Earth’s atmosphere is thickest within the first 50 km from the surface or so, but it actually reaches out to about 10,000 km into space. It is made up of five main layers – the Troposphere, the Stratosphere, the Mesosphere, the Thermosphere, and the Exosphere. As a rule, air pressure and density decrease the higher one goes into the atmosphere and the farther one is from the surface.

Winter Solstice
Earth, as viewed from the cabin of the Apollo 11 spacecraft. Credit: NASA

The bulk of the Earth’s atmosphere is down near the Earth itself. In fact, 75% of the Earth’s atmosphere is contained within the first 11 km above the planet’s surface. However, the outermost layer (the Exosphere) is the largest, extending from the exobase – located at the top of the thermosphere at an altitude of about 700 km above sea level – to about 10,000 km (6,200 mi). The exosphere merges with the emptiness of outer space, where there is no atmosphere.

The exosphere is mainly composed of extremely low densities of hydrogen, helium and several heavier molecules – including nitrogen, oxygen and carbon dioxide. The atoms and molecules are so far apart that the exosphere no longer behaves like a gas, and the particles constantly escape into space. These free-moving particles follow ballistic trajectories and may migrate in and out of the magnetosphere or with the solar wind.

Want more planet Earth facts? We’re halfway through. Here come 5 more!

6. The Earth’s Molten Iron Core Creates a Magnetic Field:

The Earth is like a great big magnet, with poles at the top and bottom near to the actual geographic poles. The magnetic field it creates extends thousands of kilometers out from the surface of the Earth – forming a region called the “magnetosphere“. Scientists think that this magnetic field is generated by the molten outer core of the Earth, where heat creates convection motions of conducting materials to generate electric currents.

The magnetic field and electric currents in and around Earth generate complex forces that have immeasurable impact on every day life. The field can be thought of as a huge bubble, protecting us from cosmic radiation and charged particles that bombard Earth in solar winds. It's shaped by winds of particles blowing from the sun called the solar wind, the reason it's flattened on the "sun-side" and swept out into a long tail on the opposite side of the Earth. Credit: ESA/ATG medialab
Artist’s impression of the Earth’s protective magnetic field and the dynamo effect in its core that gives rise to it. Credit: ESA/ATG medialab

Be grateful for the magnetosphere. Without it, particles from the Sun’s solar wind would hit the Earth directly, exposing the surface of the planet to significant amounts of radiation. Instead, the magnetosphere channels the solar wind around the Earth, protecting us from harm. Scientists have also theorized that Mars’ thin atmosphere is due to it having a weak magnetosphere compared to Earth’s, which allowed solar wind to slowly strip it away.

7. Earth Doesn’t Take 24 Hours to Rotate on its Axis:

It actually takes 23 hours, 56 minutes and 4 seconds for the Earth to rotate once completely on its axis, which astronomers refer to as a Sidereal Day. Now wait a second, doesn’t that mean that a day is 4 minutes shorter than we think it is? You’d think that this time would add up, day by day, and within a few months, day would be night, and night would be day.

But remember that the Earth orbits around the Sun. Every day, the Sun moves compared to the background stars by about 1° – about the size of the Moon in the sky. And so, if you add up that little motion from the Sun that we see because the Earth is orbiting around it, as well as the rotation on its axis, you get a total of 24 hours.

This is what is known as a Solar Day, which – contrary to a Sidereal Day – is the amount of time it takes the Sun to return to the same place in the sky. Knowing the difference between the two is to know the difference between how long it takes the stars to show up in the same spot in the sky, and the it takes for the sun to rise and set once.

8. A year on Earth isn’t 365 days:

It’s actually 365.2564 days. It’s this extra .2564 days that creates the need for a Leap Year once ever four years. That’s why we tack on an extra day in February every four years – 2004, 2008, 2012, etc. The exceptions to this rule is if the year in question is divisible by 100 (1900, 2100, etc), unless it divisible by 400 (1600, 2000, etc).

9. Earth has 1 Moon and 2 Co-Orbital Satellites:

As you’re probably aware, Earth has 1 moon (aka. The Moon). Plenty is known about this body and we have written many articles about it, so we won’t go into much detail there. But did you know there are 2 additional asteroids locked into a co-orbital orbits with Earth? They’re called 3753 Cruithne and 2002 AA29, which are part of a larger population of asteroids known as Near-Earth Objects (NEOs).

The asteroid known as 3753 Cruithne measures 5 km across, and is sometimes called “Earth’s second moon”. It doesn’t actually orbit the Earth, but has a synchronized orbit with our home planet. It also has an orbit that makes it look like it’s following the Earth in orbit, but it’s actually following its own, distinct path around the Sun.

Meanwhile, 2002 AA29 is only 60 meters across and makes a horseshoe orbit around the Earth that brings it close to the planet every 95 years. In about 600 years, it will appear to circle Earth in a quasi-satellite orbit. Scientists have suggested that it might make a good target for a space exploration mission.

10. Earth is the Only Planet Known to Have Life:

We’ve discovered past evidence of water and organic molecules on Mars, and the building blocks of life on Saturn’s moon Titan. We can see amino acids in nebulae in deep space. And scientists have speculated about the possible existence of life beneath the icy crust of Jupiter’s moon Europa and Saturn’s moon Titan. But Earth is the only place life has actually been discovered.

But if there is life on other planets, scientists are building the experiments that will help find it. For instance, NASA just announced the creation of the Nexus for Exoplanet System Science (NExSS), which will spend the coming years going through the data sent back by the Kepler space telescope (and other missions that have yet to be launched) for signs of life on extra-solar planets.

Europa's cracked, icy surface imaged by NASA's Galileo spacecraft in 1998. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SETI Institute.
Europa’s cracked, icy surface imaged by NASA’s Galileo spacecraft in 1998. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SETI Institute.

Giant radio dishes are currently scan distant stars, listening for the characteristic signals of intelligent life reaching out across interstellar space. And newer space telescopes, such as NASA’s James Webb Telescope, the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), and the European Space Agency’s Darwin mission might just be powerful enough to sense the presence of life on other worlds.

But for now, Earth remains the only place we know of where there’s life. Now that is an interesting fact!

We have written many interesting articles about planet Earth here on Universe Today. Here’s What is the Highest Place on Earth?, What is the Diameter of the Earth?, What is the Closest Planet to Earth?, What is the Surface Temperature of Earth? and The Rotation of the Earth?

Other articles include how fast the Earth rotates, and here’s an article about the closest star to Earth. If you’d like more info on Earth, check out NASA’s Solar System Exploration Guide on Earth. And here’s a link to NASA’s Earth Observatory.

And there’s even an Astronomy Cast episode on the subject of planet Earth.

What Causes Air Pollution?

By definition, pollution refers to any matter that is “out of place”. In other words, it is what happens when toxins, contaminants, and other harmful products are introduced into an environment, disrupting its normal patterns and functions. When it comes to our atmosphere, pollution refers to the introduction of chemicals, particulates, and biological matter that can be harmful to humans, plants and animals, and cause damage to the natural environment.

Whereas some causes of pollution are entirely natural – being the result of sudden changes in temperature, seasonal changes, or regular cycles – others are the result of human impact (i.e. anthropogenic, or man-made). More and more, the effects of air pollution on our planet, especially those that result from human activity, are of great concern to developers, planners and environmental organizations, given the long-term effect they can have.

Continue reading “What Causes Air Pollution?”

What is the Rotation of the Earth?

What if someone were to tell you that at any given moment, you were traveling at speeds well in excess of the speed of sound? You might think they were crazy, given that – as best as you could tell – you were standing on solid ground, and not in the cockpit of a supersonic jet. Nevertheless, the statement is correct. At any given moment, we are all moving at a speed of about 1,674 kilometers an hour, thanks to the Earth’s rotation,

By definition, the Earth’s rotation is the amount of time that it takes to rotate once on its axis. This is, apparently, accomplished once a day – i.e. every 24 hours. However, there are actually two different kinds of rotation that need to be considered here. For one, there’s the amount of time it take for the Earth to turn once on its axis so that it returns to the same orientation compared to the rest of the Universe. Then there’s how long it takes for the Earth to turn so that the Sun returns to the same spot in the sky.

Continue reading “What is the Rotation of the Earth?”

What Causes Lightning?

Thunder and lightning. When it comes to the forces of nature, few other things have inspired as much fear, reverence, or fascination – not to mention legends, mythos, and religious representations. As with all things in the natural world, what was originally seen as a act by the Gods (or other supernatural causes) has since come to be recognized as a natural phenomena.

But despite all that human beings have learned over the centuries, a degree of mystery remains when it comes to lightning. Experiments have been conducted since the time of Benjamin Franklin; however, we are still heavily reliant on theories as to how lighting behaves.

Description:
By definition, lightning is a sudden electrostatic discharge during an electrical storm. This discharge allows charged regions in the atmosphere to temporarily equalize themselves, when they strike an object on the ground. Although lightning is always accompanied by the sound of thunder, distant lightning may be seen but be too far away for the thunder to be heard.

Types:
Lightning can take one of three forms, which are defined by what is at the “end” of the branch channel (i.e. lightning bolt). For example, there is intra-cloud lighting (IC), which takes place between electrically charged regions of a cloud; cloud-to-cloud (CC) lighting, where it occurs between one functional thundercloud and another; and cloud-to-ground (CG) lightning, which primarily originates in the thundercloud and terminates on an Earth surface (but may also occur in the reverse direction).

Multiple paths of cloud-to-cloud lightning, Swifts Creek, Australia.. Credit: fir0002/flagstaffotos.com.au
Multiple paths of cloud-to-cloud lightning, Swifts Creek, Australia.. Credit: fir0002/flagstaffotos.com.au

Intra-cloud lightning most commonly occurs between the upper (or “anvil”) portion and lower reaches of a given thunderstorm. In such instances, the observer may see only a flash of light without hearing any thunder. The term “heat-lightning” is often applied here, due to the association between locally experienced warmth and the distant lightning flashes.

In the case of cloud-to-cloud lightning, the charge typically originates from beneath or within the anvil and scrambles through the upper cloud layers of a thunderstorm, normally generating a lightning bolt with multiple branches.

Cloud-to-ground (CG) is the best known type of lightning, though it is the third-most common – accounting for approximately 25% cases worldwide. In this case, the lightning takes the form of a discharge between a thundercloud and the ground, and is usually negative in polarity and initiated by a stepped branch moving down from the cloud.

CG lightning is the best known because, unlike other forms of lightning, it terminates on a physical object (most often the Earth), and therefore lends itself to being measured by instruments. In addition, it poses the greatest threat to life and property, so understanding its behavior is seen as a necessity.

 Frequency of lightning strikes throughout the world, based on data from NASA. Credit: Wikipedia/Citynoise
Frequency of lightning strikes throughout the world, based on data from NASA. Credit: Wikipedia/Citynoise

Properties:
Lighting originates when wind updrafts and downdrafts take place in the atmosphere, creating a charging mechanism that separates electric charges in clouds – leaving negative charges at the bottom and positive charges at the top. As the charge at the bottom of the cloud keeps growing, the potential difference between cloud and ground, which is positively charged, grows as well.

When a breakdown at the bottom of the cloud creates a pocket of positive charge, an electrostatic discharge channel forms and begins traveling downwards in steps tens of meters in length. In the case of IC or CC lightning, this channel is then drawn to other pockets of positive charges regions. In the case of CG strikes, the stepped leader is attracted to the positively charged ground.

Many factors affect the frequency, distribution, strength and physical properties of a “typical” lightning flash in a particular region of the world. These include ground elevation, latitude, prevailing wind currents, relative humidity, proximity to warm and cold bodies of water, etc. To a certain degree, the ratio between IC, CC and CG lightning may also vary by season in middle latitudes.

About 70% of lightning occurs over land in the tropics where atmospheric convection is the greatest. This occurs from both the mixture of warmer and colder air masses, as well as differences in moisture concentrations, and it generally happens at the boundaries between them. In the tropics, where the freezing level is generally higher in the atmosphere, only 10% of lightning flashes are CG. At the latitude of Norway (around 60° North latitude), where the freezing elevation is lower, 50% of lightning is CG.

Lightning strikes captured from space above Rome in 2012. Credit: ESA/NASA/André Kuipers
A series of lightning strikes imaged by the Nightpod camera aboard the ISS above Rome in 2012. Credit: ESA/NASA/André Kuipers

Effects:
In general, lightning has three measurable effects on the surrounding environment. First, there is the direct effect of a lightning strike itself, in which structural damage or even physical harm can result. When lighting strikes a tree, it vaporizes sap, which can result in the trunk exploding or a large branches snapping off and falling to the ground.

When lightning strikes sand, soil surrounding the plasma channel may melt, forming tubular structures called fulgurites. Buildings or tall structures hit by lightning may be damaged as the lightning seeks unintended paths to ground. And though roughly 90% of people struck by lightning survive, humans or animals struck by lightning may suffer severe injury due to internal organ and nervous system damage.

Thunder is also a direct result of electrostatic discharge. Because the plasma channel superheats the air in its immediate vicinity, the gaseous molecules undergo a rapid increase in pressure and thus expand outward from the lightning creating an audible shock wave (aka. thunder). Since the sound waves propagate not from a single source, but along the length of the lightning’s path, the origin’s varying distances can generate a rolling or rumbling effect.

High-energy radiation also results from a lightning strike. These include x-rays and gamma rays, which have been confirmed through observations using electric field and X-ray detectors, and space-based telescopes.

A fulgerite formed in sand y Credit: blogs.discovermagazine.com
A fulgerite formed in sandy patch as a result of a lightning strike. Credit: blogs.discovermagazine.com

Studies:
The first systematic and scientific study of lightning was performed by Benjamin Franklin during the second half of the 18th century. Prior to this, scientists had discerned how electricity could be separated into positive and negative charges and stored. They had also noted a connection between sparks produced in a laboratory and lightning.

Franklin theorized that clouds are electrically charged, from which it followed that lightning itself was electrical. Initially, he proposed testing this theory by placing iron rod next to a grounded wire, which would be held in place nearby by an insulated wax candle. If the clouds were electrically charged as he expected, then sparks would jump between the iron rod and the grounded wire.

In 1750, he published a proposal whereby a kite would be flown in a storm to attract lightning. In 1752, Thomas Francois D’Alibard successfully conducted the experiment in France, but used a 12 meter (40 foot) iron rod instead of a kite to generate sparks. By the summer of 1752, Franklin is believed to have conducted the experiment himself during a large storm that descended on Philadelphia.

For his upgraded version of the experiment, Franking attacked a key to the kite, which was connected via a damp string to an insulating silk ribbon wrapped around the knuckles of Franklin’s hand. Franklin’s body, meanwhile, provided the conducting path for the electrical currents to the ground. In addition to showing that thunderstorms contain electricity, Franklin was able to infer that the lower part of the thunderstorm was generally negatively charged as well.

An artistic rendition of Franklin's kite experiment painted by Benjamin West. Credit: Public Domain
An artistic rendition of Franklin’s kite experiment painted by Benjamin West. Credit: Public Domain

Little significant progress was made in understanding the properties of lightning until the late 19th century when photography and spectroscopic tools became available for lightning research. Time-resolved photography was used by many scientists during this period to identify individual lightning strokes that make up a lightning discharge to the ground.

Lightning research in modern times dates from the work of C.T.R. Wilson (1869 – 1959) who was the first to use electric field measurements to estimate the structure of thunderstorm charges involved in lightning discharges. Wilson also won the Nobel Prize for the invention of the Cloud Chamber, a particle detector used to discern the presence of ionized radiation.

By the 1960’s, interest grew thanks to the intense competition brought on by the Space Age. With spacecraft and satellites being sent into orbit, there were fears that lightning could post a threat to aerospace vehicles and the solid state electronics used in their computers and instrumentation. In addition, improved measurement and observational capabilities were made possible thanks to improvements in space-based technologies.

In addition to ground-based lightning detection, several instruments aboard satellites have been constructed to observe lightning distribution. These include the Optical Transient Detector (OTD), aboard the OrbView-1 satellite launched on April 3rd, 1995, and the subsequent Lightning Imaging Sensor (LIS) aboard TRMM, which was launched on November 28th, 1997.

The Colima Volcano (Volcán de Colima) pictured on March 29, 2015 with lightning. Credit and copyright: César Cantú.
The Colima Volcano (Volcán de Colima) pictured on March 29, 2015 with lightning. Credit and copyright: César Cantú.

Volcanic Lightning:
Volcanic activity can produce lightning-friendly conditions in multiple ways. For instance, the powerful ejection of enormous amounts of material and gases into the atmosphere creates a dense plume of highly charged particles, which establishes the perfect conditions for lightning. In addition, the ash density and constant motion within the plume continually produces electrostatic ionization. This in turn results in frequent and powerful flashes as the plume tries to neutralize itself.

This type of thunderstorm is often referred to as a “dirty thunderstorm” due to the high solid material (ash) content.  There have been several recorded instances of volcanic lightning taking place throughout history. For example, during the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 CE, Pliny the Younger noted several powerful and frequent flashes taking place around the volcanic plume.

Extraterrestrial Lightning:
Lightning has been observed within the atmospheres of other planets in our Solar System, such as Venus, Jupiter and Saturn. In the case of Venus, the first indications that lightning may be present in the upper atmosphere were observed by the Soviet Venera and U.S. Pioneer missions in the 1970s and 1980s. Radio pulses recorded by the Venus Express spacecraft (in April 2006) were confirmed as originating from lightning on Venus.

Artist concept of Venus' surface. Credit: NASA)
Artist concept of a lightning stormVenus. Credit: NASA)

Thunderstoms that are similar to those on Earth have been observed on Jupiter. They are believed to be the result of moist convection with Jupiter’s troposphere, where convective plumes bring wet air up from the depths to the upper parts of the atmosphere, where it then condenses into clouds of about 1000 km in size.

The imaging of the night-side hemisphere of Jupiter by the Galileo in the 1990 and by the Cassini spacecraft in December of 2000 revealed that storms are always associated with lightning on Jupiter. While lighting strikes are on average a few times more powerful than those on Earth, they are apparently less frequent. A few flashes have been detected in polar regions, making Jupiter the second known planet after Earth to exhibit polar lightning.

Lighting has also been observed on Saturn. The first instance occurred in 2010 when the Cassini space probe detected flashes on the night-side of the planet, which happened to coincide with the detection of powerful electrostatic discharges. In 2012, images taken by the Cassini probe in 2011 showed how the massive storm that wrapped the northern hemisphere was also generating powerful flashes of lightning.

Once thought to be the “hammer of the Gods”, lightning has since come to be understood as a natural phenomena, and one that exists on other terrestrial worlds and even gas giants. As we come to learn more about how lighting behaves here on Earth, that knowledge could go a long way in helping us to understand weather systems on other worlds as well.

We have written many articles about lightning here at Universe Today. Here’s an article about NASA’s biggest lightning protection system. And here’s an interesting article about the possible connection between solar wind and lightning.

If you’d like more info on lightning, check out the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Homepage. And here’s a link to NASA’s Earth Observatory.

We also have an episode of Astronomy Cast, titled Episode 51: Earth.

Solar System History: How Was the Earth Formed?

Winter Solstice


Just how did the Earth — our home and the place where life as we know it evolved — come to be created in the first place? In some fiery furnace atop a great mountain? On some divine forge with the hammer of the gods shaping it out of pure ether? How about from a great ocean known as Chaos, where something was created out of nothing and then filled with all living creatures?

If any of those accounts sound familiar, they are some of the ancient legends that have been handed down through the years that attempt to describe how our world came to be. And interestingly enough, some of these ancient creation stories contain an element of scientific fact to them.

When it comes to how the Earth was formed, forces that can only be described as fiery, chaotic, and indeed godlike, were involved. However, in the past few centuries, research and refinements made in what is today known as Earth Sciences have allowed scientists to assemble a more empirical and scientific understanding of how our world was formed.

Basically, scientists have ascertained that several billion years ago our Solar System was nothing but a cloud of cold dust particles swirling through empty space. This cloud of gas and dust was disturbed, perhaps by the explosion of a nearby star (a supernova), and the cloud of gas and dust started to collapse as gravity pulled everything together, forming a solar nebula — a huge spinning disk. As it spun, the disk separated into rings and the furious motion made the particles white-hot.

The center of the disk accreted to become the Sun, and the particles in the outer rings turned into large fiery balls of gas and molten-liquid that cooled and condensed to take on solid form. About 4.5 billion years ago, they began to turn into the planets that we know today as Earth, Mars, Venus, Mercury, and the outer planets.

The first era in which the Earth existed is what is known as the Hadean Eon. This name comes from the Greek word “Hades” (underworld), which refers to the condition of the planet at the time. This consisted of the Earth’s surface being under a continuous bombardment by meteorites and intense volcanism, which is believed to have been severe due to the large heat flow and geothermal gradient dated to this era.

Outgassing and volcanic activity produced the primordial atmosphere, and evidence exists that liquid water existed at this time, despite the conditions on the surface. Condensing water vapor, augmented by ice delivered by comets, accumulated in the atmosphere and cooled the molten exterior of the planet to form a solid crust and produced the oceans.

It was also during this eon – roughly 4.48 billion years ago (or 70–110 million years after the start of the Solar System) – that the Earth’s only satellite, the Moon, was formed. The most common theory, known as the “giant impact hypothesis” proposes that the Moon originated after a body the size of Mars (sometimes named Theia) struck the proto-Earth a glancing blow.

It is believed that 4.4 billion years ago, a celestial body (Theia) slammed into Earth and produced the Moon. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
It is believed that 4.4 billion years ago, a celestial body (Theia) slammed into Earth and produced the Moon. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The collision was enough to vaporize some of the Earth’s outer layers and melt both bodies, and a portion of the mantle material was ejected into orbit around the Earth. The ejecta in orbit around the Earth condensed, and under the influence of its own gravity, became a more spherical body: the Moon.

The Hadean Eon ended roughly 3.8 billion years ago with the onset of the Archean age. Much like the Hadean, this eon takes it name from a ancient Greek word, which in this case means “beginning” or “origin.” This refers to the fact that it was during this period that the Earth had cooled significantly and life forms began to evolve.

Most life forms today could not have survived in the Archean atmosphere, which lacked oxygen and an ozone layer. Nevertheless, it is widely understood that it was during this time that most primordial life began to take form, though some scientists argue that many lifeforms may have occurred even sooner during the late Hadean.

At the beginning of this Eon, the mantle was much hotter than it is today, possibly as high as 1600 °C (2900 °F). As a result, the planet was much more geologically active, processes like convection and plate tectonics occurred much faster, and subduction zones were more common. Nevertheless, the presence of sedimentary rock date to this period indicates an abundance of rivers and oceans.

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

The first larger pieces of continental crust are also dated to the late Hadean/early Achean Eons. What is left of these first small continents are called cratons, and these pieces of crust form the cores around which today’s continents grew. As the surface continually reshaped itself over the course of the ensuing eons, continents formed and broke up.

The continents migrated across the surface, occasionally combining to form a supercontinent. Roughly 750 million years ago, the earliest-known supercontinent called Rodinia began to break apart, then recombined 600 – 540 million years ago to form Pannotia, then finally Pangaea. This latest supercontinent broke apart 180 million years ago, eventually settling on the configuration that we know today. (See graphics from Geology.com here)

Since that time, a mere blip on the geological time scale, all the events that we consider to be “recent history” took place. The dinosaurs ruled and then died, mammals achieved ascendancy, hominids began to slowly evolve into the species we know as homo sapiens, and civilization emerged. And it all began with a lot of dust, fire, and some serious impacts. From this, the Sun, Moon, Earth, and life as we know it were all created.

We have written many articles about the Earth for Universe Today. Here’s an article about the temperature of Earth, and here are some facts about the planet Earth.

If you’d like more info on Earth, check out NASA’s Solar System Exploration Guide on Earth. And here’s a link to NASA’s Earth Observatory.

We’ve also recorded an episode of Astronomy Cast all about planet Earth. Listen here, Episode 51: Earth.

Further reading: Windows to the Universe, BBC.

What is a Warm Front?

Warm Front

[/caption]A warm front is the transition zone that marks where a warm air mass starts replacing a cold air mass. Warm fronts tend to move from southwest to southeast. Normally the air behind a warm front is warmer than the air in front of it. Normally when a warm front passes through an area the air will get warmer and more humid. Warm fronts signal significant changes in the weather. Here are some of the weather signs that appear as a warm front passes over a region.

First before the warm front arrives the pressure in area start to steadily decrease and temperatures remain cool. The winds tend to blow south to southeast in the northern hemisphere and north to northeast in the southern hemisphere. The precipitation is normally rain, sleet, or snow. Common cloud types that appear would various types of stratus, cumulus, and nimbus clouds. The dew point also rises steadily

While the front is passing through a region temperatures start to warm rapidly. The atmospheric pressure in the area that was dropping starts to level off. The winds become variable and precipitation turns into a light drizzle. Clouds are mostly stratus type clouds formations. The dew point then starts to level off.

After the warm front passes conditions completely reverse. The atmospheric pressure rises slightly before falling. The temperatures are warmer then they level off. The winds in the northern hemisphere blow south-southwest in the northern hemisphere and north-northwest in the southern hemisphere. Cloudy conditions start to clear with only cumulonimbus and stratus clouds. The dew point rises then levels off.

Knowing about how warm fronts work gives a better understanding of how pressure systems interact with geography to create weather. Looking at warm fronts we learn that they are the transition zone between warm humid air masses and cool, dry air masses. We know that these masses interact in a cycle of rising and falling air that alters the pressure of atmosphere causing changes in weather.

We have written many articles about warm front for Universe Today. Here’s an article about cyclones, and here’s an article about cloud formations.

If you’d like more info on warm front, check out NOAA National Weather Service. And here’s a link to NASA’s Earth Observatory.

We’ve also recorded an episode of Astronomy Cast all about planet Earth. Listen here, Episode 51: Earth.

Reference:
http://ww2010.atmos.uiuc.edu/(Gh)/guides/mtr/af/frnts/wfrnt/def.rxml

What Causes Wind?

Who Discovered Oxygen

It was not until recent memory that what causes wind was understood. Wind is caused by air flowing from high pressure to low pressure. The Earth’s rotation prevents that flow from being direct, but deflects it side to side(right in the Northern Hemisphere and left in the Southern), so wind flows around the high and low pressure areas. This movement around is important for very large and long-lived pressure systems. For small, short-lived systems (outflow of a thunderstorm) the wind will flow directly from high pressure to low pressure.

The closer the high and low pressure areas are together, the stronger the pressure gradient, so the winds are stronger. On weather maps, lines of constant pressure are drawn(isobars). These isobars are usually labeled with their pressure value in millibars (mb). The closer these lines are together, the stronger the wind. The curvature of the isobars is also important to the wind speed. Given the same pressure gradient (isobar spacing), if the isobars are curved anticyclonically (around the high pressure ) the wind will be stronger. If the isobars are curved cyclonically (around the low pressure) the wind will be weaker.

Friction from the ground slows the wind down. During the day convective mixing minimizes this effect, but at night(when convective mixing has stopped) the surface wind can slow considerably, or even stop altogether.

Wind is one way that the atmosphere moves excess heat around. Directly and indirectly, wind forms for the primary purpose of helping to transport excess heat in one of two ways: away from the surface of the Earth or from warm regions(tropics) to cooler regions. This is done by extratropical cyclones, monsoons, trade winds, and hurricanes. Now, you have the answer to what causes wind and its primary function on our planet.

We have written many articles about the wind for Universe Today. Here’s an article about wind energy, and here’s an article about how wind power works.

If you’d like more info on wind, check out Visible Earth Homepage. And here’s a link to NASA’s Earth Observatory.

We’ve also recorded an episode of Astronomy Cast all about planet Earth. Listen here, Episode 51: Earth.

How Much Does the Earth Weigh?

Winter Solstice

Earth is, by any reckoning, a pretty big place. Ever since humanity first began the process of exploring, philosophers and scholars have sought to understand its exact dimensions. In addition to wanting to quantify its diameter, circumference, and surface area, they have also sought to understand just how much weight it packs on.

In terms of mass, Earth is also a pretty big customer. Compared to the other bodies of the Solar System, it is the largest and densest of the rocky planets. And over the course of the past few centuries, our methods for determining its mass have improved – leading to the current estimate of 5.9736×1024kg (1.31668×1025 lbs).

Size and Composition:

With a mean radius of 6,371.0 km (3,958.8 mi), Earth is the largest terrestrial planet in our Solar System. This means that it is composed primarily of silicate rock and metals, which are differentiated between a solid inner core, an outer core of molten metal, and a silicate mantle and crust made of silicate material.

This cutaway of planet Earth shows the familiar exterior of air, water and land as well as the interior: from the mantle down to the outer and inner cores. Currents in hot, liquid iron-nickel in the outer core create our planet's protective but fluctuating magnetic field. Credit: Kelvinsong / Wikipedia
This cutaway of planet Earth shows the familiar exterior of air, water and land as well as the interior: from the mantle down to the outer and inner cores. Credit: Kelvinsong / Wikipedia

Earth is composed approximately of 32% iron, 30% oxygen, 15% silicon, 14% magnesium, 3% sulfur, 2% nickel, 1.5% calcium, and 1.4% aluminum, with the remaining made up of trace elements. Meanwhile, the core region is primarily composed of iron (88.8%), with smaller amounts of nickel (5.8%), sulfur (4.5%), and less than 1% trace elements.

Mass and Density:

Earth is also the densest planet in the Solar System, with a mean density of 5.514 g/cm3 (0.1992 lbs/cu in). Between its size, composition and the distribution of its matter, the Earth has a mass of 5.9736×1024 kg (5.9 trillion trillion kilograms) or 1.31668×1025 lbs (13 billion trillion tons).

But since the Earth’s density is not even throughout – i.e. it is denser towards the core than it is at its outer layers – its mass is also not evenly distributed.In fact, the density of the inner core (at 12.8 to 13.1 g/cm³; 0.4624293 lbs/cu in), while the density of the crust is just 2.2–2.9 g/cm³ (0.079 – 0.1 lbs/cu in).

The layers of the Earth, a differentiated planetary body. Credit: Wikipedia Commons/Surachit
The layers of the Earth, a differentiated planetary body. Credit: Wikipedia Commons/Surachit

This overall mass and density is also what causes Earth to have a gravitational pull equivalent to 9.8 m/s² (32.18 ft/s2), which is defined as 1 g.

History of Study:

Modern scientists discerned what the mass of the Earth was by studying how things fall towards it. Gravity is created by mass, so the more mass an object has, the more gravity it will pull with. If you can calculate how an object is being accelerated by the gravity of an object, like Earth, you can determine its mass.

In fact, astronomers didn’t accurately know the mass of Mercury or Venus until they finally put spacecraft into orbit around them. They had rough estimates, but once there were orbiting spacecraft, they could make the final mass calculations. We know the mass of Pluto because we can calculate the orbit of its moon Charon.

The Geoid 2005 model, which was based on data of two satellites (CHAMP and GRACE) plus surface data. Credit: GFZ
The Geoid 2005 model, which was based on data of two satellites (CHAMP and GRACE) plus surface data. Credit: GFZ

And by studying other planets in our Solar System, scientists have had a chance to improve the methods and instruments used to study Earth. From all of this comparative analysis, we have learned that Earth outstrips Mars, Venus and Mercury in terms of size, and all other planets in the Solar System in terms of density.

In short, the saying “its a small world” is complete rubbish!

We have written many articles about Earth for Universe Today. Here’s Ten Interesting Facts About Earth, What is the Diameter of the Earth?, How Strong is the Force of Gravity on Earth?, What is the Rotation of the Earth?

If you’d like more info on Earth, check out NASA’s Solar System Exploration Guide on Earth. And here’s a link to NASA’s Earth Observatory.

We’ve also recorded an episode of Astronomy Cast all about planet Earth. Listen here, Episode 51: Earth.

Sources:

Last Day of Summer

Winter Solstice

Summertime is a joyous time for so many reasons. There’s the sense of vacation, that feeling of freedom we remember so fondly from our childhoods. There’s the warmth weather, the sunshine, the early mornings and cool, late evenings. Seriously, there’s nothing wrong with summer, except the unfortunate fact that sooner or later, it has to end.

But when exactly is the very last day of summer? Well, it differs from place to place, depending on your location, whether you are north or south of the equator and by how much. But in the Northern Hemisphere, the change in seasons occurred on September 22nd for the year of 2010. In the Southern Hemisphere, it took place on February 28th.

In order to understand why this date was pegged as the end of the season, we need to understand exactly how the season itself is measured. These have to do with the equinoxes and solstices, seasonal markers that occur twice a year respectively. From an astronomical point of view, the equinoxes and solstices are in the middle of the respective seasons, but a variable seasonal lag means that the meteorological start of the season, which is based on average temperature patterns, occurs several weeks later than the start of the astronomical season.

According to meteorologists, summer extends for the whole months of June, July and August in the northern hemisphere and the whole months of December, January and February in the southern hemisphere. Interestingly enough, in this hemisphere, the end of the summer season is also dependent on whether or not it is a leap year (during leap years, an extra day is added).

In North America, summer is often fixed as the period from the summer solstice (June 20 or 21, depending on the year) to the fall equinox (September 22 or 23, again depending on the year). Therefore, Sept. 22 was the last day of summer and the beginning of the 2010 autumnal equinox, which officially began at 11:09 p.m. EST., the full moon having peaked the following morning at 5:17 a.m. EST which marked it as the first day of fall in the Northern Hemisphere.

The moon closest to the September equinox is considered the “Harvest Moon.” Its name stems from when farmers would rely on the light to work in the fields as the days grew shorter. For the first time since 1991, the full moon fell on the equinox, creating a “Super Harvest Moon.” In the Southern Hemisphere, the last day of summer was February 28th since 2010 was not a leap year.

We have written many articles about Summer for Universe Today. Here’s an article about the summer solstice, and here’s an article about the Earth seasons.

If you’d like more info on Earth, check out NASA’s Solar System Exploration Guide on Earth. And here’s a link to NASA’s Earth Observatory.

We’ve also recorded an episode of Astronomy Cast all about planet Earth. Listen here, Episode 51: Earth.

Sources:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Summer
http://www.tonic.com/article/last-day-of-summer-first-night-of-fall-super-harvest-moon/
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Equinox
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solstice
http://wiki.answers.com/Q/What_is_the_last_day_of_summer_in_Southern_Hemisphere