Are You Aphelion Confused?

By Samantha Kramer, AccuWeather.com Staff Writer
July 5, 2012; 4:10 PM ET
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During the first week of July, our planet reaches a spot in its orbit called the "aphelion," and it is at its farthest point from the sun. (Photo courtesy of Photos.com)

More than 40,000 high temperature records have been broken in the U.S. so far this year. With that kind of heat, you'd think the Earth was close enough to the sun to hold hands.

But actually, it's quite the opposite. This week, the Earth is at its farthest point from the sun than it will be all year.

This seeming paradox occurs when our planet comes to a point in its orbit called the "aphelion," the spot Earth reaches on its elliptical orbit when it is farthest from the sun.

At midnight EDT on July 5, the Earth will be about 1.5 million miles farther than it usually is from the sun.

The reasoning behind this paradox has to do with the Earth's tilt, not its distance, said AccuWeather Meteorologist Mark Paquette.

"It's a misunderstood phenomenon," Paquette said. "Most people [in the Northern Hemisphere] think, 'OK, it's summer. The Earth must be closest to the sun,' when really it's the exact opposite."

The U.S. can blame the Earth's 23.5-degree tilt for this month's intense heat waves. During summer, the Northern Hemisphere tilts toward the sun. Even though the planet is farther from the sun, continents in its direct rays will receive three times as much heat as they do in winter months, when the Earth is closest to the sun.

This "tilted" concept occurs again in January during the perihelion, when Earth is closer to the sun by more than 3 million miles than it is at the aphelion.

During the perihelion in the Northern Hemisphere's winter, the planet receives 7 percent more sunshine, but because our hemisphere tilts away from the sun, we have colder temperatures and snowy weather while regions in the Southern Hemisphere enjoy their summer.

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