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Solar radiation and Earth's seasons

AP.ENVSCI:
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Review your understanding of solar radiation and Earth's seasons in this free article aligned to AP standards.

Key points

  • Nearly all of Earth’s energy comes from incoming solar radiation, or insolation. The insolation reaching any one spot on Earth's surface varies according to latitude and season.
  • Earth is a sphere. This means that the sun’s rays hit the different latitudes of Earth at different angles. The angle at which the sun’s rays hit the Earth determines the intensity of the solar radiation at that location.
    • At latitudes near the equator (0, degree), the Earth’s surface is almost directly perpendicular to the angle of the sun’s rays. In these regions, solar radiation is intense because the sun’s energy is concentrated over a small surface area. As a result, equatorial latitudes generally experience hot temperatures throughout the year.
    • At mid latitudes (23, degree to 66, degree), the sun’s rays hit the Earth at a slant. This means that incoming solar radiation is spread over a larger surface area, and so is less intense than at equatorial latitudes. Earth’s mid latitudes generally experience seasonal warm and cool temperatures during the year.
    • At polar latitudes (66, degree to 90, degree), the sun’s rays hit the Earth at even more of a slant. So, at polar latitudes, incoming solar radiation is spread over an even larger surface area, and is even less intense than at mid latitudes. In addition, the suns rays become scattered and diffuse as they travel through the Earth’s atmosphere, and this effect increases with latitude. The polar latitudes generally experience cold temperatures throughout the year.
  • The Earth's axis of rotation is tilted 23, point, 5, degree from the plane of its orbit. As the Earth rotates the sun, this tilt causes seasons, which are divisions of the year that vary in temperature, weather, and the number of daylight hours.
  • The duration and intensity of insolation at different locations on Earth varies seasonally. A location receives its most intense radiation during summer, and its least intense radiation during winter.
    • Summer occurs when a hemisphere is tilted towards the sun. This tilt causes the hemisphere to get more direct sunlight for more hours a day, and temperatures tend to be warmer. A location on Earth’s surface receives the most solar radiation on its summer solstice, which is the summer day with the longest period of daylight.
    • Winter occurs when a hemisphere is tilted away from the sun. This tilt causes the hemisphere to get less direct sunlight for fewer hours a day, and temperatures tend to be cooler. A location on Earth’s surface receives the least solar radiation on its winter solstice, which is the winter day with the shortest period of daylight.
The Earth is shown at four positions along its orbit around the sun. The position left of the sun is labeled June 20/21, summer in the northern hemisphere, and winter in the southern hemisphere. Here, the northern hemisphere is tilted toward the sun and the southern hemisphere is tilted away from the sun. The position behind the sun is labeled March 20, spring in the northern hemisphere, autumn in the southern hemisphere. Here neither hemisphere is tilted toward the sun. The position right of the sun is labeled December 21/22, winter in the northern hemisphere, summer in the southern hemisphere. Here the southern hemisphere is tilted toward the sun and the northern hemisphere is tilted away from the sun. The position in front of the sun is labeled September 22/23, autumn in the northern hemisphere, spring in the southern hemisphere. Here neither hemisphere is tilted toward the sun.
The tilt of Earth’s axis of rotation causes the seasons. Image credit: “North season.jpg" by Tauʻolunga, Public domain.

Want to join the conversation?

  • blobby green style avatar for user jb268536
    Because the ligts.
    (2 votes)
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  • leafers seed style avatar for user John Smith
    how would part of the planet be winter and the other be summer or spring and autumn, because that would mean that if I lived in the northern hemisphere it might be winter and then if I hopped on a plane and moved to the southern hemisphere it would be summer. how would I have either gone forward two seasons or gone back two seasons?
    (2 votes)
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    • leafers seedling style avatar for user tess
      you haven't gone forward or backward, it's just that January is warm in the southern hemisphere, so you haven't gone forward or back you have just gone to an area with different temperatures. The same way that places like California is warmer than somewhere like Canada.
      (1 vote)
  • blobby green style avatar for user charam9742
    how does solar radiation affect earth's seasons
    (1 vote)
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    • piceratops ultimate style avatar for user GGatorZ21
      The Earth revolves around the sun in an elliptical orbit and is closer to the sun during part of the year. When the sun is nearer the Earth, the Earth's surface receives a little more solar energy. The Earth is nearer the sun when it is summer in the southern hemisphere and winter in the northern hemisphere.
      (1 vote)
  • leafers seed style avatar for user abicoo201
    How do seasons occur?
    (1 vote)
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