What point at the top of the atmosphere gets the most solar radiation on the day of the summer solstice? Would you believe the North Pole?
Yes, that’s right. If the Earth’s pole of axial rotation were perpendicular to its orbital plane, the North Pole wouldn’t get any incoming radiation, and summer solstice would not even be defined. But with an axial tilt of only 23.5°, the pole still gets more radiation over 24 hours on the date of the summer solstice than any other point of the northern hemisphere on any date. Only the South Pole gets more, on the day of the winter solstice.
It doesn’t show up in temperature, first because much of the incoming solar radiation is scattered away during its long path through the atmosphere, and second because the ice and snow at the North Pole reflect much of the radiation back to space. (The second factor may be changing, and this is one of the reasons the Arctic is such a sensitive region.)
But suppose the axial tilt were 90°?
We do have one planet in our Solar System that approaches this: Uranus, with a tilt of 82.14°. But let’s stick with the Earth and assume it has a tilt of 90°. What would the seasons be like?
Summer solstice at the pole would be unbearable. Imagine the sun directly overhead at noon. Now stretch that noon out in time, so that the sun stays overhead for 24 hours. Hot? No place on Earth has that much incoming solar radiation today. Granted there would probably be clouds. In fact, there would probably be hurricane-like monsoonal storms unknown on our planet today. But it would still be hot.
By contrast, the South Pole would be in the middle of a six-month long night. It would have some stored heat left from the intense summer, probably enough to keep maritime climates above freezing. But it would still be dark except for the stars, the moon, and the southern lights.
The equator? At summer solstice, the equator would be pretty chilly. The sun would never rise or set, but just appear to sit at the northern horizon. As time moves toward the autumnal equinox, the sun gradually begins to rise in the north-northeast at 6 am, ride to its maximum height in the northern sky, and then set in the north-northwest at 6 pm. By the equinox, the sun would rise in the east, rise to directly overhead and then set in the west. But at the north pole, the sun has been spiraling gradually down the sky from overhead, until it finally just glides along the horizon at both poles on the day of the equinox, which begins a 6-month night for the North Pole and a 6-month day at the South Pole.
What happens if you add up all of the incoming solar energy over the course of a year? Not too surprisingly, the poles are the winners, with the equatorial regions being relatively cool. Given that water is much better at storing heat than land, the oceans would be warmer at the poles than the equator. Land areas are far more likely to follow a strong annual cycle. High-latitude continental climates would have tremendous seasonal variation, while maritime climates would be much more uniform. Monsoons, which are driven by these land-sea differences, would be extreme. And equatorial climates, which on our earth are primarily wet or dry, would be intensely cold near the solstices and as warm as they get on the equinoxes.
I haven’t actually tried this as a science fiction world—I want my planets to be habitable! But I do have a planet with zero axial tilt—Eversummer—in Tourist Trap. To quote Marna, the planet’s name must have been picked out by a publicity agent!
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