A Time For Perihelion

Earth’s elliptical orbit viewed at an angle (which makes it look more eccentric than it is – in reality is very nearly circular).

According to my new RAS Diary,  today (Tuesday 4th January 2022) at approximately 06:55 GMT the Earth reaches at the point on its orbit which which it is at its closest to the Sun, i.e. at its perihelion. At this time the distance from the Sun’s centre to Earth’s centre will be  147,105,052 km. This year, aphelion (the furthest distance from the Sun) is at 08:11 GMT on July 4th 2022 at which point the centre of the Earth will be 152,098,455  km from the centre of the Sun. You can find a list of times and dates of perihelion and aphelion for future years here.

At perihelion the speed of the Earth in its orbit around the Sun is greater than at aphelion (about 30.287 km/s versus 29.291 km/s). This difference, caused by the Earth’s orbital eccentricity, contributes to the difference between mean time and solar time I blogged about when discussing the Winter Solstice a couple of weeks ago.

It surprises me how many people think that the existence of the seasons has something to do with the variation of the Earth’s distance from the Sun as it moves in its orbit. The fact that perihelion occurs in the depth of winter should convince anyone living in the Northern hemisphere that this just can’t be the case, as should the fact that it’s summer in the Southern hemisphere while it is winter in the North.

The real reason for the existence of seasons is the tilt of the Earth’s axis of rotation. I used to do a little demonstration with a torch (flashlight to American readers) to illustrate this when I taught first-year astrophysics. If you shine a torch horizontally at a piece of card it will illuminate a patch of the card. Keep the torch at the same distance but tilt the card and you will see the illuminated patch increase in size. The torch is radiating the same amount of energy but in the second case that energy is spread over a larger area than in the first. This means that the energy per unit area incident on the card is decreases when the card is tilted. It is that which is responsible for winter being colder than summer. In the summer the sun is higher in the sky (on average) than in winter. From this argument you can infer that the winter solstice not the perihelion, is the relevant astronomical indicator of winter.

That is not to say that the shape of the Earth’s orbit has no effect on temperatures. It may, for example, contribute to the summer in the Southern hemisphere being hotter than in the North, although it is not the only effect. The Earth’s surface possesses a significant North-South asymmetry: there is a much larger fraction of ocean in the Southern hemisphere, for example, which could be responsible for moderating any differences in temperature due to insolation. The climate is a non-linear system that involves circulating air and ocean currents that respond in complicated ways and on different timescales not just to insolation but to many other parameters, including atmospheric composition (especially the amount of water vapour).

The dates when Earth reaches the extreme points on its orbit (apsides) are not fixed because of the variations in its orbital eccentricity so, in the short-term, the dates can vary up to 2 days from one year to another. The perihelion distance varies slightly from year to year too; it’s slightly greater this year than last year, for example.

There is however a long-term trend for perihelion to occur later in the year. For example, in 1246, the December Solstice (Winter Solstice for the Northern Hemisphere) was on the same day as the Earth’s perihelion. Since then, the perihelion and aphelion dates have drifted by an average of one day every 58 years and this trend will continue. This means that by the year 6430 the timing of the perihelion and the March Equinox will coincide, although I will probably have retired by then…

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