Milankovitch cycles

Milankovitch theory describes the collective effects of changes in the Earth‘s movements upon its climate, named after Serbian geophysicist and astronomer Milutin Milanković, who worked on it during his internment as a POW during the First World War. Milanković mathematically theorized that variations in eccentricity, axial tilt, and precession of the Earth’s orbit determined climatic patterns on Earth through orbital forcing.

The Earth’s axis completes one full cycle of precession approximately every 26,000 years. At the same time, the elliptical orbit rotates more slowly. The combined effect of the two precessions leads to a 21,000-year period between the astronomical seasons and the orbit. In addition, the angle between Earth’s rotational axis and the normal to the plane of its orbit (obliquity) oscillates between 22.1 and 24.5 degrees on a 41,000-year cycle. It is currently 23.44 degrees and decreasing.

Similar astronomical theories had been advanced in the 19th century by Joseph Adhemar, James Croll and others, but verification was difficult due to the absence of reliably dated evidence and doubts as to exactly which periods were important. Not until the advent of deep-ocean cores and a seminal paper by Hays, Imbrie, and Shackleton, “Variations in the Earth’s Orbit: Pacemaker of the Ice Ages”, in Science (1976)[1] did the theory attain its present state.


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