Milutin Milankovitch

by Steve Graham • March 24, 2000

 Milutin Milankovitch The Serbian astrophysicist Milutin Milankovitch is best known for developing one of the most significant theories relating Earth motions and long-term climate change. Born in 1879 in the rural village of Dalj (then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, today located in Croatia), Milankovitch attended the Vienna Institute of Technology and graduated in 1904 with a doctorate in technical sciences. After a brief stint as the chief engineer for a construction company, he accepted a faculty position in applied mathematics at the University of Belgrade in 1909—a position he held for the remainder of his life.

Milankovitch dedicated his career to developing a mathematical theory of climate based on the seasonal and latitudinal variations of solar radiation received by the Earth. Now known as the Milankovitch Theory, it states that as the Earth travels through space around the sun, cyclical variations in three elements of Earth-sun geometry combine to produce variations in the amount of solar energy that reaches Earth:

  1. Variations in the Earth's orbital eccentricity—the shape of the orbit around the sun.

  2. Changes in obliquity—changes in the angle that Earth's axis makes with the plane of Earth's orbit.

  3. Precession—the change in the direction of the Earth's axis of rotation, i.e., the axis of rotation behaves like the spin axis of a top that is winding down; hence it traces a circle on the celestial sphere over a period of time.

Together, the periods of these orbital motions have become known as Milankovitch cycles.

next: Orbital Variations


On the Shoulders of Giants
Milutin Milankovitch
Orbital Variations
Milankovitch Theory
Links and References

Top: A portrait of Milutin Milankovitch. (Drawing by Hailey King)

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