If you're seeing this message, it means we're having trouble loading external resources on our website.

If you're behind a web filter, please make sure that the domains *.kastatic.org and *.kasandbox.org are unblocked.

Main content

Are southern hemisphere seasons more severe?

Are Southern Hemisphere seasons more severe because of the eccentricity in Earth's orbit? Created by Sal Khan.

Want to join the conversation?

Video transcript

In previous videos we've already talked about the idea that there are times in Earth's orbit when it is closer to the sun and when it is farther from the sun. And when it is closer to the sun, so let's say that this is the time in the orbit when it's closer to the sun, this is the perihelion. And when it's farthest from the sun, and I'm exaggerating the difference, this is aphelion. This is the aphelion in our orbit, when we are farthest from the sun. And maybe our orbit looks something like this. I shouldn't have the bulge over there. So maybe our orbit looks something like this over here. And what I point out in the first video where we discuss this is that this is not the cause of the seasons. Even though we are 3% closer right now, the way our orbit is set up, and we'll see in future videos that the difference or the eccentricity, or how elliptical the orbit is, does change over time, how much it deviates from being circular. That's one way to think about eccentricity. That does change over time. But right now when we are closest to the sun we are 3% closer than when we are farthest from the sun. So 3% closer than at aphelion. And we point out in the first video when we discussed this that this is not the cause of the seasons. And in particular, perihelion , when we were closest to the sun, when we actually have the most radiation from the sun, that's actually when we have the Northern Hemisphere winter. So this occurs right over here. This occurs in January. And aphelion occurs in July. Now, based on this, this might lead to an interesting question, because let's think about January when we're at perihelion, and let's think about July when we're at aphelion. Let me draw a quick globe right over here. And let's make that the equator. And I'll draw it in both situations. So January is obviously when we have the Northern Hemisphere winter. So I'll paint it in blue right over here. It is winter. And July is when we have the Northern Hemisphere summer, or the Southern Hemisphere winter. So then we have winter during July in the Southern Hemisphere. And let me put summer in a more summery color. I guess that orange is a pretty good color, but that's not orange. Here's orange. All right. That's orange. And that's orange. So these are summer. So that's the summer in the Southern Hemisphere, which occurs during the winter the Northern Hemisphere, and vice versa. Summer in the Northern Hemisphere occurs during winter in the Southern Hemisphere. And so the question might be rising in your head, and I did see a few comments on that first video asking this question, and it's a good one. If we are closer to the sun in January, or we are closest to the sun in January-- this is the perihelion right over here-- and so we are getting more solar radiation in January, does that moderate the winter? Does that moderate the winter in the Northern Hemisphere? Or I guess another way to think about it, does it make the summer in the Southern Hemisphere when we are closer to the sun, does it make it more extreme, or hotter? And vice versa, in July, when we are farthest from the sun, does that moderate the Northern Hemisphere winter? Because it's hot out there, but hey, we're little bit farther from the sun. And does it make the Southern Hemisphere winter colder? So once again does it make this more extreme? Because it's already winter and we're farther from the sun. So maybe we're also getting less radiation. And so there's a couple ways to think about it. One, it is true that when we're farther we are getting a little bit less radiation from the sun or we're getting heated up a little bit less. But the one reality is that the Southern Hemisphere climate as a whole is not more extreme despite getting more solar energy in the summer and getting less solar energy in the winter. And the reason why it is not as extreme-- Let me draw the equator here just so we can separate our hemispheres. The main reason it is believed that it is not more extreme is that the Southern Hemisphere has a lot more water in it. So just if you look at the surface of the Southern Hemisphere you're looking at a lot more water than the surface of the Northern Hemisphere. And this is, of course, it's a Mercator projection, and so it distorts things so that things near the poles get really kind of built up to look really huge even though they really aren't that big. Greenland really isn't larger than South America. It just spreads them out so that you can kind of flatten out the map, so to speak. But the Southern Hemisphere has more water, and as you may have learned in chemistry class, water has a higher specific heat. It takes a higher specific energy, more heat, to raise water a degree than it does to raise land a degree. And so water can absorb more energy. Or when there's less energy, water will release more energy without dropping as much of a temperature. So water has a moderating influence on the climate. So even though the summers in the Southern Hemisphere actually are getting more radiation than the summers in the Northern Hemisphere, it's moderated on the actual temperature because the water has the ability to absorb more of that heat without changing the temperature as dramatically. Now, with that said, it is true that in general Antarctica is colder. Antarctica is colder than the North Pole. But the main reason why Antarctica is colder, besides the fact that it's on land, as opposed to the North Pole being in the center of the Arctic Ocean, is that it's actually a huge, very high altitude ice sheet. And so the altitude for most of Antarctica is around 8,000 feet. So it's kind of like an alpine altitude. So the main reason why it's colder is possibly being farther away from the sun in winter might play some role there, but the main reason why it's colder is it is just at a much higher altitude, and it's to some degree insulated from the water, or I guess you could say it's on the land. So especially during the long winters it's going to get that much colder. But I'll leave you there, and to some degree, and this is the other aspect of it, during the summers-- And all of this stuff is super complicated. So you can't just draw out one rule of thumb and say this is the reason. But these are all the influences-- is that if you have a super large ice sheet it's also more likely to reflect more of the energy because it's white, as opposed to a darker color like the ocean or the land. And so you can think about all of those factors, but the general answer is it's a good question. But overall, the climate in the Southern Hemisphere is not more extreme than the climate in the Southern Hemisphere, even though Antarctica is colder.