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How the Earth Works

Night and Day
The Earth's tilt creates its seasons. The captions in this image relate to the northern hemisphere.
The Earth's tilt creates its seasons. The captions in this image relate to the northern hemisphere.
Photo courtesy NOAA

Some of the sun's biggest impacts on our planet are also its most obvious. As the Earth spins on its axis, parts of the planet are in the sun while others are in the shade. In other words, the sun appears to rise and set. The parts of the world that are in daylight get warmer while the parts that are dark gradually lose the heat they absorbed during the day.

You can get a sense of how much the sun affects the Earth's temperature by standing outside on a partly cloudy day. When the sun is behind a cloud, you feel noticeably cooler than when it isn't. The surface of our planet absorbs this heat from the sun and emits it the same way that pavement continues to give off heat in the summer after the sun goes down. Our atmosphere does the same thing -- it absorbs the heat that the ground emits and sends some of it back to the Earth.

The Earth's relationship with the sun also creates seasons. The Earth's axis tips a little -- about 23.5 degrees. One hemisphere points toward the sun as the other points away. The hemisphere that points toward the sun is warmer and gets more light -- it's summer there, and in the other hemisphere it's winter. This effect is less dramatic near the equator than at the poles, since the equator receives about the same amount of sunlight all year. The poles, on the other hand, receive no sunlight at all during their winter months, which is part of the reason why they're frozen.

Most people are so used to the differences between night and day (or summer and winter) that they take them for granted. But these changes in light and temperature have an enormous impact on other systems on our planet. One is the circulation of air through our atmosphere. For example:

  1. The sun shines brightly over the equator. The air gets very warm because the equator faces the sun directly and because the ozone layer is thinner there.
  2. As the air warms, it begins to rise, creating a low pressure system. The higher it rises, the more the air cools. Water condenses as the air cools, creating clouds and rainfall. The air dries out as the rain falls. The result is warm, dry air, relatively high in our atmosphere.
  3. Because of the lower air pressure, air rushes toward the equator from the north and south. As it warms, it rises, pushing the dry air away to the north and the south.
  4. The dry air sinks as it cools, creating high-pressure areas and deserts to the north and south of the equator.

This is just one piece of how the sun circulates air around the world -- ocean currents, weather patterns and other factors also play a part. But in general air moves from high-pressure to low-pressure areas, much the way that high-pressure air rushes from the mouth of an inflated balloon when you let go. Heat also generally moves from the warmer equator to the cooler poles. Imagine a warm drink sitting on your desk -- the air around the drink gets warmer as the drink gets colder. This happens on Earth on an enormous scale.

The Coriolis Effect, a product of the Earth's rotation, affects this system as well. It causes large weather systems, like hurricanes, to rotate. It helps create westward-running trade winds near the equator and eastward-running jet streams in the northern and southern hemispheres. These wind patterns move moisture and air from one place to another, creating weather patterns. (The Coriolis Effect works on a large scale -- it doesn't really affect the water draining from the sink like some people suppose.)

The sun gets much of the credit for creating both wind and rain. When the sun warms air in a specific location, that air rises, creating an area of low pressure. More air rushes in from surrounding areas to fill the void, creating wind. Without the sun, there wouldn't be wind. There also might not be breathable air at all. We'll look at the reasons for this next.

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