The Sun warms our planet - the surface, the atmosphere and bodies of water. It allows this mother and young boy to enjoy warmth and light during an outing at the beach. Photo taken in May in the Outer Banks, NC.
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Sun's Effect on Earth

Energy from the Sun is very important to the Earth. The Sun warms our planet, heating the surface, the oceans and the atmosphere. This energy to the atmosphere is one of the primary drivers our weather. Our climate is also strongly affected by the amount of solar radiation received at Earth. That amount changes based on the Earth’s albedo, that is how much radiation is reflected back from the Earth’s surface and clouds.

The amount of radiation given off by the Sun changes with solar activity like solar flares or sunspots. Solar activity is known to vary in cycles, like the 11-yr sunspot cycle (and longer cycles). Some scientists have wondered if changes in our weather and climate might be linked with short or long term solar cycles. Weather is the current atmospheric conditions, including temperature, rainfall, wind, and humidity for a given area, while climate is the general weather conditions over a longer amount of time. This has been an active area of research for decades. It is an example of the scientific process.

Some scientists tried to find a link between changes in Earth’s weather and solar variability. Although some scientists reported such correlations, later studies have not been able to find the same result, casting in doubt or disproving the original studies. Examples include studies of the relationship between the number of sunspots and changes in wind patterns, or between cosmic rays and clouds.

More researchers have looked at the influence of solar variation on Earth’s climate, again with mixed success. Changes in sunspot cycles do change the amount of solar radiation given off by the Sun, but only by a little bit. These changes aren't enough to account for the majority of the warming observed in the atmosphere over the last half of the 20th century. The only way that climate models can match the observed warming of the atmosphere is with the addition of greenhouse gases. If you would like to learn more about the relationship between solar variation and climate, visit the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Frequently Asked Questions section of their recent report.

Last modified January 28, 2008 by Jennifer Bergman.

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Windows to the Universe, a project of the National Earth Science Teachers Association, is sponsored in part is sponsored in part through grants from federal agencies (NASA and NOAA), and partnerships with affiliated organizations, including the American Geophysical Union, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Earth System Information Partnership, the American Meteorological Society, the National Center for Science Education, and TERC. The American Geophysical Union and the American Geosciences Institute are Windows to the Universe Founding Partners. NESTA welcomes new Institutional Affiliates in support of our ongoing programs, as well as collaborations on new projects. Contact NESTA for more information. NASA ESIP NCSE HHMI AGU AGI AMS NOAA