The Earth's climate has undergone many changes since the planet formed out of molten rock and metal. Lately, the planet has cycled in and out of cold glacial periods followed by warm interglacials. Our current interglacial period as of 2011 is known as the Holocene and has lasted about 12,000 years. A wide range of natural factors influence and affect the climate as it changes over geological time.
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Latitudinal location is a major factor affecting the climate's temperature. The closer to the equator you get, the warmer it will be with less seasonal and day-length change. The sun's rays come in at a straighter angle and produce more heat during the long tropical days. At higher latitudes the angled solar radiation is weaker and its heat is diminished by the long winter nights, creating a cold polar climate. Temperate zones feature extreme seasonal climatic changes.
The lay of the land has a strong influence on an area's climate. High mountain alpine climates are cooler than the valleys below. The mountains block moisture-filled air movement to influence the amount of rain and snowfall. A region's distance from the ocean or a large body of water affects the climate by producing warmer winters and cooler summers. Precipitation levels are increased by proximity to water. Volcanoes and eroding outcrops of carbonate rock such as limestone contribute carbon dioxide to the atmosphere for a warming effect.
Variations in the orbit of the Earth called the Milankovitch cycles may be the primary factor affecting global climate. The shape of the Earth's orbit varies from circular to slightly elliptical. This variation determines the distance between the Earth and the sun. The orbital cycle's 100,000 year length correlates with the length of the ice age cycles. The tilt of the Earth's axis relative to the orbital plane shifts regularly and affects the length of daylight and angle of the sun's rays.
The variable output of the sun affects global and regional climate. As the sun's radiational output increases and decreases, it changes the solar wind and consequently the space weather surrounding the Earth. Changes in the Earth's magnetosphere offer more or less protection from the solar wind with consequences for the climate. Sunspots and solar flares are related to the climate's variability. The Maunder Minimum was a period of very little sunspot activity that coincided with the "Little Ice Age" of 1645 to 1715.
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