You are on page 1of 2

What Causes the Day/Night Cycle on Earth?

Print this article The Earth rotates from west to east.

Flag this photo The cause of day and night on Earth is the subject of myths the world over. Whether it was said to be caused by the Greek god Helios driving his chariot across the sky or the Egyptian god Ra traveling through the underworld each day, ancient peoples needed a way to explain the existence of day and night. However, modern science has provided a natural explanation to the phenomenon, coupled with the knowledge that Earth is round.

Rotation of the Earth

The Earth rotates counterclockwise around its axis. The side that faces the sun experiences daylight, and the side facing away from the sun experiences nightfall. The Earth rotates toward the east, hence the common thought that the sun rises in the east and sets in the west. This is not due east or west; it varies from a northeast-southwest line to a southeast-northwest line throughout the year, and depending on whether you observe the sun's movement from the Northern or Southern Hemisphere.

Axial Tilt

The Earth's axis is tilted approximately 23 degrees -- slightly shy of the 1 o'clock position on a clock -- in the same direction as it rotates. This tilt causes the change in seasons; different hemispheres of Earth get more sunlight at different periods in the Earth's revolution. In addition, the days and nights vary their length. For example, in June, the Northern Hemisphere is pointed toward the sun, so more of its surface area receives sunlight each rotation. In September and March, both hemispheres are equidistant from the sun. In December, the Southern Hemisphere is pointed toward the sun, so the Northern Hemisphere has shorter days.

Cause of Earth's Rotation

All bodies in space rotate to some degree. This is because of the conservation of angular momentum; multiplying angular velocity and radius will always yield the same result unless outside forces act on the rotating object. The sun pulled dust and debris toward it, and the gravity caused the dust particles to deviate from their straight path and form an orbit around the sun. In turn, the dust clumped together and attracted more dust, causing it to rotate. Eventually, the whole planet was rotating around a central axis.

Rotational Speed

The Earth rotates once every 23 hours and 56 minutes at speeds of over 1,000 miles per hour. It rotates faster around the equator than around the poles. Rotation is sped up and slowed down due to natural effects. The moon slows down Earth's rotation slightly due to its pull on the oceans. The oceans provide their own inertia, counteracting the rotation of Earth. Also, the mass of the Earth redistributes with the expansion or contraction of glaciers.