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Milankovitch Cycles Climate Applet

Tom Whittaker, University of Wisconsin

An applet about the Milankovitch cycle that relates temperature over the last 400,000 years to changes in the eccentricity, precession, and orbital tilt of Earth's orbit.

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Climate Literacy
About Teaching Climate Literacy

The tilt of Earth’s axis relative to its orbit around the Sun results in predictable changes in the duration of daylight and the amount of sunlight received at any latitude throughout a year. These changes cause the annual cycle of seasons and associated temperature changes.
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Gradual changes in Earth's rotation and orbit around the Sun change the intensity of sunlight received in our planet’s polar and equatorial regions. For at least the last 1 million years, these changes occurred in 100,000-year cycles that produced ice ages and the shorter warm periods between them.
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Sunlight reaching the Earth can heat the land, ocean, and atmosphere. Some of that sunlight is reflected back to space by the surface, clouds, or ice. Much of the sunlight that reaches Earth is absorbed and warms the planet.
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Sun is the primary source of energy for Earth’s climate system
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Based on evidence from tree rings, other natural records, and scientific observations made around the world, Earth’s average temperature is now warmer than it has been for at least the past 1,300 years. Average temperatures have increased markedly in the past 50 years, especially in the North Polar Region.
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Notes From Our Reviewers The CLEAN collection is hand-picked and rigorously reviewed for scientific accuracy and classroom effectiveness. Read what our review team had to say about this resource below or learn more about how CLEAN reviews teaching materials
Teaching Tips | Science | Pedagogy | Technical Details

Teaching Tips

  • Instructor should take a few minutes to go over the directions below the applet.
  • Be sure to note that you can view the diagram from either the top or the side view.
  • Suggestion: first have students plot temperature data from the Vostok ice core (link on visualization page), and then use this applet to explore and 'test' the strength of various forcing cycles.

About the Science

  • Allows direct comparison, on a graph, between temperature data derived from the Vostok ice core and forcing from the major Milankovitch cycles, paired with animation of Earth's orbit, tilt, and precession over the last 400,000 years.
  • These cycles were first calculated by Serbian mathematician Milan Milankovic in the early 20th Century and are now well established as important factors that can drive long term climate processes. See: http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/paleo/ctl/clisci100k.html#cycles
  • Because of the understanding of these cycles, climatologists are confident that recent warming is not being caused by such orbital cycles.
  • Comments from expert scientist: The Sun-Earth Geometry is nicely demonstrated
  • The change in the Earth's orbit is not displayed. This is the key to Milankovitch Cycles.

About the Pedagogy

  • The direct comparison of the graph and animations allows different learning styles to engage simultaneously with the concepts.
  • Very good example to use to explain a difficult concept, especially to visual learners.

Technical Details/Ease of Use

  • Applet loads quickly and plays fine on Firefox.
  • Requires Adobe Flashplayer.

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