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Tilt!

Scientists are speculating about what will happen if the melting ice caps cause the Earth to change its tilt. Would life would still be possible if this happened? One way to find out is to study other planets with tilts that are greater than ours.

Penn State Astronomer Darren M. Williams says, "I suspect, based on simulations and our own solar system, that many Earth-like planets will have spin axes that are tipped more severely than Earth?s axis." He used computer programs to create planets with no tilt and with tilts of 54, 70 and 85 degrees. Earth's tilt today is about 23 degrees.

"Tilts greater than the present produce global annual-mean temperatures higher than Earth's present mean temperature of about 57 degrees Fahrenheit," says Williams. "Above 54 degrees of tilt, the trend is for the global annual-mean temperature to decrease as tilt increases." So when a planet first starts to increase its tilt, it warms up, but when the tilt gets big enough, it cools down again (this could cause ice caps to increase, starting the whole process over again).

Surprisingly, Williams found that the Earth was an easier place to inhabit in the past. "Present Earth is one of the most uninhabitable planets that we have simulated," he says. "Approximately 8.7% of the Earth's surface is colder than 14 degrees Fahrenheit on average, and this percentage peaks at 13.2% in February owing to the large landmasses at high latitude covered by snow" The only way Earth could be colder than it is today would be if it had no tilt at all.

One problem with a greater tilt would be an increase in light extremes. Large portions of the planet would be either in 24-hour darkness or 24-hour sunlight for long periods, which would inhibit plant growth.

But we could survive a greater tilt. "Provided the life does not occupy continental surfaces plagued seasonally by the highest temperature, these planets could support more advanced life," Williams says. "While such worlds exhibit climates that are very different from Earth's, many will still be suitable for both simple and advanced forms of water-dependent life."

Williams says, "Maybe one day we will figure out everything about life on our own planet, but nowhere near what is possible elsewhere." The government is keeping some strange secrets?is an upcoming Earth tilt one of them?At least it won't be our final hour.

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