Stabilization of the Earth's obliquity by the Moon


ACCORDING to Milankovitch theory1,2, the ice ages are related to variations of insolation in northern latitudes resulting from changes in the Earth's orbital and orientation parameters (precession, eccentricity and obliquity). Here we investigate the stability of the Earth's orientation for all possible values of the initial obliquity, by integrating the equations of precession of the Earth. We find a large chaotic zone which extends from 60° to 90° in obliquity. In its present state, the Earth avoids this chaotic zone and its obliquity is essentially stable, exhibiting only small variations of ± 1.3° around the mean value of 23.3°. But if the Moon were not present, the torque exerted on the Earth would be smaller, and the chaotic zone would then extend from nearly 0° up to about 85°. Thus, had the planet not acquired the Moon, large variations in obliquity resulting from its chaotic behaviour might have driven dramatic changes in climate. In this sense one might consider the Moon to act as a potential climate regulator for the Earth.

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Laskar, J., Joutel, F. & Robutel, P. Stabilization of the Earth's obliquity by the Moon. Nature 361, 615–617 (1993).

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