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Chapter 2: Solar Energy, Seasons,and the Atmosphere
Solar energy at the top of the atmosphere sets into
motion the winds, weather systems, and ocean
currents that greatly influence our lives. This solar
energy input to the atmosphere plus Earth’s tilt,
orientation, revolution, and rotation produce daily,
seasonal, and annual patterns of changing
daylength and Sun angles.
The periodic rhythms of warmth and cold,
dawn and daylight, twilight and night have
fascinated humans for centuries. In fact, many
ancient societies demonstrated a greater awareness
of seasonal change do than modern peoples, and
formally commemorated natural energy rhythms
with festivals and monuments. Presently, warmseason length is on the increase worldwide in
response to global temperature change.
Insolation cascades through the atmosphere
toward Earth’s surface, powering the physical
systems in the atmosphere, in the oceans, and on
land—varying through the seasonal changes just
discussed. Along the way the atmosphere works as
an efficient filter, removing harmful radiation
from sunlight. Let’s now examine the seasonal
changes and the filtering effect of our unique
This exercise will introduce you to shifting patterns of solar energy, seasons, and the atmosphere. After
completing these exercises, you should be able to:
x Define solar altitude, solar declination, and daylength and describe the annual variability of each—
x Describe conditions within the stratosphere; specifically, review the function and status of the
ozonosphere (ozone layer).
Download the solar.kmz file from www.mygeoscienceplace.com and open it in Google Earth™.
Exploration 1: Net Radiation
After reviewing the section “Global Net Radiation” in your text, double click on the Daily Net Radiation
placemark and make sure that its box is checked. This animation shows changing patterns of monthly clearsky average net radiant flux from July 2002 through June 2004 as measured by the CERES instrument. The
regions that are red to yellow are the regions of maximum heating, and the blue regions are regions of
Chapter 2: Solar Energy, Seasons, and the Atmosphere
1. Given what you know about the orbit of Earth around the Sun, where and when would you expect to
find the highest radiation values? Where and when would you expect to find the lowest radiation
values? Personal answer, but highest values should be by the equator and lowest values
should be at the poles.
2. Where and when do you find the highest radiation values? What is the highest radiation value in
? 50° North and South around the time of their summer solstices. 200 W/m2
3. Where and when do you find the lowest radiation values? What is the lowest radiation value in
? The poles around the time of their winter solstices. -200 W/m2
4. Describe the pattern of net radiation over the course of a year. Which regions show consistent
cooling? The regions of net input follow the sub-solar point. The Sahara desert and the
Arabian peninsula show consistent cooling. The regions of net input follow the sub-solar
point. The Sahara desert and the Arabian peninsula show consistent cooling. The regions of
net input follow the sub-solar point. The Sahara desert and the Arabian peninsula show
consistent cooling. The regions of net input follow the sub-solar point. The Sahara desert
and the Arabian peninsula show consistent cooling.
5. Which regions show consistent warming? The equator shows consistent warming.
6. The location of the subsolar point travels from 23.5° north to 23.5° south, for a total of 47° of
movement. After viewing the animation several times, pause it during January and July. What is the
latitude of the maximum heating in January? in July? How many degrees does the region of
maximum heating travel across during the year? January 50° N, July 55° S. 105° of annual
7. Given that the regions of maximum heating are farther apart than the regions of maximum solar
energy, heat is obviously transferred from the equator toward the poles. According to the text, what
heat engine transfers heat energy from the tropics to the poles? Ocean currents, prevailing winds,
storms, and hurricanes.
8. Freeze the animation on March 20, 1993. (A) What is the radiant flux for the Sahara desert (Mali,
Algeria, Niger, Chad, Libya, Egypt) in watts/m2
? -50 W/m2
(B) How does this value compare with sub-Saharan Africa (Cote d’Ivoire eastward to the Central
African Republic) and the Mediterranean? +75 W/m2
(C) How do you explain the difference in radiant flux? The desert has very dry conditions
resulting in lower amounts of latent heat expenditure. The lack of water vapor in the
atmosphere allows great amounts of heat absorbed during the day to return back out to
space at night.
Exploration 2: Solar Altitude and Declination
After reviewing the section “The Seasons” in your text, double click on the Analemma placemark and make
sure that the box is checked to display its features. In this exploration you will find locations based on their
longitude, as well as finding the latitude and longitude of locations. The analemma is a graphic depiction of
the declination of the subsolar point over the course of a year. The analemma shows the latitude of the
location where the rays from the Sun are striking the surface of Earth at a 90° angle. The location of the
subsolar point is shown for the first of each month, as well as for the solstices and equinoxes. When you click
on one of the dates in the Analemma folder the pop-up balloon will show the date and location of the subsolar
point for that date.
1. What is the location of the subsolar point on the date closest to your birthday? Personal answer
2. What is the location of the subsolar point on the date closest to today? Will depend upon time of
3. (A) How many degrees of latitude does the subsolar point travel across from December 1st to
January 1st? ~1°
(B) From March 1st to April 1st? ~12°
4. (A) How does this affect the amount of energy received at the tropics compared with the amount of
energy received at the equator? The tropics receive a great deal more energy than the equator
due to the longer length of time the subsolar point spends directly over the tropics.
Chapter 2: Solar Energy, Seasons, and the Atmosphere
(B) Which location would you expect to receive more energy during the year? The tropics receive
2.5X more energy than the poles.
Uncheck the box for the Analemma placemark and click on the radio button for the Seasons placemark. Select
the Sun from either View >Sun or from the toolbar. Double click on the Spring Solstice placemark and make
sure that its radio button is displayed. As you double click on each season the circle of illumination will spin
rapidly and stop at the correct position for each season.
5. Describe the changing angle of the circle of illumination during the year. The subsolar point shifts
from the Tropic of Cancer in the summer to the Tropic of Capricorn in the winter. During
the summer the antarctic is in perpetual night, while the arctic in in perpetual day.
6. (A) Where would you go if you wanted to experience 24 hours of daylight? Poleward from the
arctic or antarctic circles.
(B) 12 hours of daylight every day? Right on the equator.
Exploration 3: Ozone Depletion
After reading the focus study section “Stratospheric Ozone Losses” in your text, double click on the Global
Ozone placemark. This placemark features an animation of global ozone levels over several years.
1. (A) What seasonal patterns do you notice regarding ozone levels? Ozone depletion peaks in October
– the antarctic spring, and levels are highest at the end of the antarctic summer.
(B) Which month has the lowest ozone levels over Antarctica? What season is that in the southern
hemisphere? See above.
2. Which month has the highest ozone levels over Antarctica? What season is that in the southern
hemisphere? June. Winter.
3. Compare the ozone levels over the Arctic with those over Antarctica. What might explain the difference
between arctic and antarctic ozone levels? Arctic levels are much higher than antarctic, due to the
lower temperatures of the antarctic stratosphere and the presence of polar stratospheric